Help is on the way for Rhode Island businesses struggling amid the widening coronavirus pandemic even as Gov. Gina Raimondo complained that the federal government needed to do a better job of supporting the states' efforts to cope with the outbreak.

Raimondo and other officials announced Tuesday a new fund to support local nonprofits serving vulnerable populations.

Small businesses will also be able to tap into federal disaster relief loans, and Microsoft is offering free software so residents can work from home. The state has 23 positive cases, and 2,500 people have been instructed to self-quarantine.

The Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island said Tuesday they’ve raised $1.5 million for their COVID-19 Response Fund.

The U.S. Small Business Administration on Tuesday approved Rhode Island’s request for economic disaster relief, Raimondo said. The low interest loan fund will help small businesses access up to $2 million in emergency capital to help cover operational costs.

Businesses should call 521-HELP for more information.

The state Department of Labor and Training said Unemployment Insurance claims rose to 9,593 from just 10 last Tuesday. Claims through the separate Temporary Disability Insurance program have increased to 545 from zero last week.

Rhode Island’s court system has postponed trials, grand jury proceedings and other matters until at least April 17.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttell said in an order issued Tuesday that only emergency and essential matters will be heard in court until then.

The passenger waiting area and ticket counters at Providence’s Kennedy Plaza bus station have been closed, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority announced Tuesday.

Buses, however, will continue to drop off and pick up passengers at the busy downtown area in front of City Hall.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday afternoon, Raimondo told the network's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, that the state's hospitals have an adequate number of beds and ventilators. She criticized the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, saying the country should be having a robust, World War II-style mobilization. 

Telephone triage

In another development, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island announced Tuesday night that it will extend coverage to telephonic triage by most specialist providers and waive member copays and deductibles for these calls. "This policy change will allow for members to get the care they need at a lower cost and in their own homes," the insurer said.

Kim Keck, president and CEO, said, “The action we’re taking today recognizes the importance of uninterrupted care for high-risk patients and the benefit of keeping these individuals home whenever possible to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19.”

Coverage for specialist triage calls will extend through April 3. "At that point, BCBSRI will reassess based on the COVID-19 public health crisis. The policy change applies to Medicare Advantage members and to commercial (fully insured) customers," the insurer said.

Microsoft offer

Here is the Microsoft offer, as reported by the health department:

Microsoft has agreed to provide its Office 365 E1 program for free for six months to all employers. The Office 365 E1 program includes web-based Microsoft Office applications, resources to support telecommuting, and remote file sharing.

"Microsoft is offering this service nationally only to businesses managed by a Microsoft account rep that haven’t activated other Microsoft Office 365 trials in the past," the department said. "But for Rhode Island, Microsoft has agreed to lift all restrictions on this offering. Microsoft is also offering a free online version of Office with email, video conferencing, customized hub for class teamwork with Microsoft Teams, compliance tools, and information protection to schools and students."

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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