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Friday, May 22, 2020

Short Takes #14: South County’s struggle with COVID-19

Summer starts as we all start going nuts
By Will Collette

By Mike ThompsonDetroit Free Press
The summer season is here as we all are going nuts while trying to decide whether it’s worth risking death to not have to cook at home.

Fortunately, take out options in Charlestown will be greatly improved this weekend. The Hitching Post has re-opened for the summer. Take-out only for eating at home or al fresco. Best clam cakes in Rhode Island!

I was by there this afternoon and every parking space was filled.


You won’t be getting take out at that Rocky Point-styled "Shore Dinner Hall" on Route One in Westerly. They’re out of business, which is no surprise, given their high prices for mediocre clam cakes. The past few seasons, it looked like their only real business was with day trippers and summer people.

I will miss 1149 in East Greenwich, a great restaurant that was a favorite for family dinners for us as well as political meetings.

Lots of other businesses are closing in addition to the big retailers J.C. Penney and Pier 1 who are closing stores in RI after the pandemic was the last straw pushing them into bankruptcy. The mini-malls in Westerly seem to have almost as many vacant spots as functioning businesses these days.

Charlestown official information

First, thank you to all town workers who come to work every day, even though many of you could (or should) work from home. I mentioned this a few “Short Takes” ago as I puzzled over how little official pandemic information comes out of the town. That information gap was one of the reasons I started writing these "Short Takes."

The town website has a special COVID-19 tab, but all it contains is a list of town staff phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (the political action committee that controls town government) is still the de facto town government information site, and that’s not right.

Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz started sending out mass e-mails after my earlier criticism. These e-mails are almost entirely comprised of cut-and-pasted copies of Governor Raimondo’s executive orders. These are often very lengthy and are offered with no commentary.

Some of that material is applicable to Charlestown; most of it is not. And just dumping the executive orders into an e-mail is not helpful.

In my opinion, we should expect our town government to translate these orders to explain how they apply specifically to Charlestown. After all, I presume each of these orders is read by somebody at Town Hall and the implications for Charlestown are discussed.

So why not share that with the rest of us?

By the numbers

Rhode Island unemployment has soared to 17.8% heading for 25%. More than a quarter million RI workers have applied for benefits.  55,000 self-employed, independent contractors and small business owners are hoping to receive benefits under the special program created to help them because they are ineligible for regular unemployment.

According to the data mavens at WalletHub.com, Rhode Island has the 7th highest unemployment rate. The worst is Nevada with just a touch under 30%. While most of our New England neighbors are in the same boat, the state with the lowest unemployment right now is Connecticut with “only” 8%.

Charlestown’s unemployment in March was 6.6% - when DLT posts the April numbers, they will almost certainly show Charlestown somewhere around the state’s 17.8% figure.

The problem with benefits

Unemployment benefits had been frozen for thousands of Rhode Islanders after discovery of an identity theft scam where applications were filed by internet crooks using stolen personal information.

Legitimate accounts are starting to get unfrozen. If you had your benefits stolen or wrongfully suspended, CLICK HERE for the form to start the process of getting your money back. RI Labor and Training promises that anyone wrongfully denied will get retroactive payments.

Law enforcement officials say this scam was generated by a Nigeria-based internet fraud gang that may have used personal information stolen during the big security breech at the Equifax credit agency a couple years ago. 

Eight states were targeted, including Rhode Island. For some reason, Washington state bore the brunt of this assault.

And don’t get me started about the botched small business relief effort. The grants and loans program was supposed to help small businesses survive and keep their workers on payroll. Instead, the program was either totally botched or sabotaged by the Trump Administration.

In an interesting twist, Rhode Island giant CVS says it is returning $43.3 million received in pandemic stimulus money because (a) they never asked for it; (b) they should not have qualified for it and (c) the money could be better used elsewhere.

Rhode Island’s Dolt Rebellion takes a hit

While we still have a scattering of wingnuts protesting against pandemic counter-measures, a little sanity returned to the town of Narragansett. Narragansett made headlines when its Town Council President Matthew Mannix proposed a resolution directing town police to ignore state directives on masks, social distancing and safe business re-opening.

He withdrew his resolution when a majority of his fellow council members said they would vote against it.

Though he acknowledged that he received lots of pushback, he said he was simply wanted pandemic responsibility to be a personal responsibility, not a government mandate. He said “Over the past few years, we have somehow forgotten those principles of private property and personal responsibility.”

Contrast this position with data from new study showing that the United States could have prevented up to half of the 90,000+ COVID-19 we have suffered had stay-at-home orders been issued a week to 10 days sooner.

We'll find out in a couple weeks how many people get sick or die so some right-wing dolts can go to the gym.

A glimmer of good news

Public pension portfolios across the US took a terrible beating due to the pandemic-driven market crash.

You no doubt saw losses in your own IRA; pension funds losses were catastrophic.

But even though Rhode Island’s pension fund value fell by 9.5%, we did better than most of the other states. We are in the top 5% of the 546 public pension funds.

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner credits what he calls his “Back to Basics” investment strategy that was designed to be balanced and thus less prone to market collapses such as that we suffered.

Check points are gone

Those National Guard and State Police checkpoints that intercepted out of state visitors to tell them about the state’s 14-day quarantine rule are gone.

Partly the reason is that they have served their purpose.

Unstated: Trump decided to terminate National Guard coronavirus deployments at 89 days, one day short of allowing Guard members to qualify for military benefits including education credits.

To our National Guard, I say thank you for your service and my apologies for the soulless sociopath in the White House who thinks so little of you.

Free Stuff

The state is offering retailers, restaurants, grocers, manufacturers and other business with 50 or less workers a free month’s supply of face masks for workers and cleaning supplies to help them re-open safely.

The one catch is that businesses will need to complete a COVID-19 control plan, and file it with the state. Templates for those plans are available at www.reopeningRI.com.

Raimondo’s popularity

For most of her term as Governor, Gina Raimondo was among the least popular governors in the country. However, her performance during the pandemic has boosted her popularity to among the highest. More than 80% of Rhode Islanders think she’s doing in good job, no matter what Republican House leader Blake “Flip” Filippi says.

She is the most popular Democratic governor and among the top rank when you include Republican governors. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, one of the few top Republicans to buck Donald Trump, is the nation’s most popular governor with 85% approval. Of all the Republican Governors, Hogan has been the most outspoken in pushing against Trump's nonsense.