Towns eye reopening beaches; CVS returns fed pandemic funds

Rhode Island communities are making plans to open local beaches shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic as Memorial Day weekend approaches.

Newport's City Manager Joseph Nicholson said this week that the city hopes to open Easton’s Beach around June 4.

He told the City Council during his Tuesday briefing that parking capacity would be capped at 33% through June and no bathrooms or showers will be available at first.

The Middletown Town Council also voted this week to reopen Third Beach on Saturday to residents only.

Gov. Gina Raimondo announced earlier this week that East Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown and Scarborough Beach in Narragansett will be the lone two state-run beaches allowed to open on Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer season.

On Wednesday, she stressed that the openings are largely symbolic: the beaches will offer free but limited parking, and lifeguards, concessions and other facilities won’t be available.

The remaining state beaches are expected to open later, and social gatherings are still limited to no more than five people, she stressed.

“This weekend is not a weekend to throw a big party,” Raimondo said. “It is not a weekend to have a big barbecue.”

“The day is about remembering the fallen Americans who have served in defense of our country,” the Democrat added, noting that a solemn ceremony planned at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter will be a largely virtual affair.

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RELIGIOUS SERVICES

Churches and other houses of worship will be limited to 25% of their capacity when they reopen on the weekend of May 30, Raimondo said Wednesday.

Neighboring Massachusetts, which is among the hardest hit states in the nation, allowed in-person religious services to resume Monday, with capacity limited to 40%.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence also released its guidelines for reopening local parishes on Wednesday .

Among the restrictions are hand sanitizing immediately upon entering a church; wear masks at all times except when receiving communion; and appropriate social distancing in the pews.

Bishop Thomas Tobin also said Catholics are still allowed to miss in-person Mass until further notice if they feel their health is at risk.

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STIMULUS MONEY

CVS Health says it's returning more than $43 million in coronavirus stimulus funds because it believes the federal aid could be put to better use elsewhere.

Company CEO Larry Merlo said in a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the Woonsocket-based drug store giant will also forgo participation in subsequent government payouts so that other providers facing more significant financial hardships can benefit.

CVS received stimulus funds sent to all Medicare providers because it offers healthcare services through its MinuteClinics, which are located in certain CVS and Target stores.

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VIRUS CASES

State health officials reported six new deaths and 200 additional cases of the coronavirus Wednesday.

That brings the state’s death toll to nearly 540 people and nearly 13,500 positive cases since the pandemic began.

Raimondo said those numbers suggest the state is holding relatively steady against the virus, though health officials also noted the number of people hospitalized with the virus rose to nearly 260 as of Wednesday, after recent declines.

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CONTACT TRACING

Roughly 10,000 Rhode Islanders have downloaded the state’s new smartphone app to help public health workers trace the contacts of COVID-19 patients, Raimondo said Wednesday.

The “Crush Covid RI” app launched Tuesday uses satellite-based GPS technology to track people’s location if they opt into that feature.

Someone who then tests positive for the coronavirus can volunteer to share their 20-day location history with the public health department.

Rhode Island is at least the fourth state to roll out a location-tracking app to fight the pandemic.

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GRIEVING FAMILIES

Rhode Island families struggling with the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 have a new resource for assistance.

The American Red Cross in Rhode Island on Wednesday announced the launch of a Virtual Family Assistance Center that offers special virtual programs, information, referrals and services to support grieving families.

The Red Cross’ virtual team includes specially trained mental health, spiritual care and health services volunteers.