People with power should never turn their fire on those without power. I think the Governor should shift her emphasis to the dangers of relaxing on COVID protocols. I think she should convey the message that we’re all in this together. I think our Governor should acknowledge that this is a difficult time, that we’ve all made mistakes, even her, but we have to do better for the sake of our whole community.
It’s time for Governor Gina Raimondo to take some responsibility. Rhode Island is seeing an alarming surge in COVID cases. At the beginning of October, the seven-day average rate of new cases rose above 150 for the first time since late May. When the Governor took action for public safety in the spring at the beginning of the crisis, many Rhode Islanders, me very much included, praised her for it. Rhode Island got glowing coverage in the national press, Raimondo’s approval ratings on her handling of the COVID crisis were very high, and she basked in the glow of popularity and public praise.
Then the Governor decided to go in a very different direction, pushing a rushed reopening. Many Rhode Islanders, me included, have spoken out against those decisions. Where Raimondo most personally committed her political power was the decision to reopen schools at all levels, from kindergarten to college, without adequate COVID safety protocols. The results have not been pretty. At Providence College, the University of Rhode Island, and Johnson and Wales, the Raimondo administration chose to approve reopening plans without regular surveillance testing of all students. Each of those schools saw considerable COVID surges, and each one had to revert course and adopt surveillance testing. PC went to temporary remote learning and imposed a lockdown enforced by the Providence police. PC and URI were also allowed to open without relaxing their strict alcohol policies, which drive parties into tightly packed indoor spaces.
For K-12 education, the picture is more obscured because the Raimondo administration has chosen not to allow asymptomatic testing in the schools, except for students and staff that the administration has verified as a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Asymptomatic testing is especially important for young people who are disproportionately likely to be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Moreover, the Raimondo administration’s official policy is to allow symptomatic individuals who are not classified as probable cases to return to schools without testing if they have been fever-free for 24 hours, so many symptomatic individuals in schools are not tested. Here is the official policy slide from the administration’s preK-12 outbreak protocol:
At her press conference on the COVID surge, the Governor chose not to take responsibility for it. Instead, she placed the blame squarely on Rhode Islanders. Speaking maskless indoors, she struck a stern tone, warning the people of our state that if we aren’t better about COVID safety, there will be repercussions. Raimondo’s primary argument for placing the blame on the people was that her administration’s internal contact tracing data suggest that the majority of these cases are traced to “social gatherings.” She did not acknowledge any connection between COVID spread at social gatherings and her lax policies around colleges, bars, and indoor dining. Although she announced another relaxation of the restrictions on small business relief, she did not acknowledge how her administration’s lack of support has driven small businesses into making desperate choices to stay afloat, straining the COVID safety protocols to their limits to make that extra dollar.
Nor did she acknowledge that her administration could, perhaps, do a better job of promoting safe COVID behavior. During times like these, Rhode Islanders look to their political leaders for guidance on how to behave. The image matters. Raimondo’s decision to not wear a mask personally at her indoor press conferences means that Rhode Islanders hear her demanding wearing a mask while she herself is not wearing one. The message falls flat. You can speak through a mask. I wore my mask while speaking on the Senate floor during our COVID sessions. You can do it. It’s fine. It is true that many politicians were lax about mask wearing early in the pandemic, but after Trump’s COVID diagnosis, prominent Democrats like Joe Biden and Senator Whitehouse have made a point of keeping their masks on while speaking on camera. Even some Trump administration staffers started wearing masks a bit more often, even when speaking to the public. Raimondo frequently has her top staffers, like DOA Director Brett Smiley (perhaps the strongest internal administration opponent of COVID safety), stand behind her maskless at the very same press conferences where she claims to support COVID safety. And that’s with the cameras rolling.
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COVID-19 was a surprise for us all. Many of us have gotten it wrong. Personally, when I read those first articles about the earliest outbreaks, I thought that COVID would go roughly like SARS or swine flu. It wasn’t until the cases started rising and deaths started piling up that I realized I was wrong and began pushing as forcefully as I could for robust public health measures and strong economic relief. In retrospect, I should have spoken out early in February about the need for precautions, for emergency funding of public health. Raimondo is far from the worst politician in our state when it comes to taking responsibility. For instance, current Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nick Mattiello have been far more aggressive about taking no responsibility, refusing to appropriate any emergency funding to help the many Rhode Islanders who are struggling and refusing to come up with a mechanism for remote or COVID-safe meetings. Both of them, Ruggerio especially, saw their candidates perform terribly in the primary, losing several seats at the hands of progressives. They may lose their positions when the incoming General Assembly votes on new leadership in January. The Governor hasn’t been the only one to not take responsibility. She doesn’t have an easy job, and we all make mistakes. But Raimondo is the one making all the decisions, and she should take at least some responsibility for the results.
Finally, there’s the question of the need to blame the people of our state. Rather than simply extolling the need to wear a mask and respect social distancing and warning about the dangers, the Governor has instead consistently chosen to chastise the people of the state. People react negatively to being blamed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s effective. You don’t always have to be critical. Sometimes, as the statehouse cliché goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It’s one thing for Raimondo to criticize other politicians. Personally, I do my best to criticize politicians when it’s needed, even when it’s uncomfortable. That’s a necessary part of American democracy. It’s what I’m doing now. But it’s a different story when we’re talking about blaming the people as a whole. People with power should never turn their fire on those without power. I think the Governor should shift her emphasis to the dangers of relaxing on COVID protocols. I think she should convey the message that we’re all in this together. I think our Governor should acknowledge that this is a difficult time, that we’ve all made mistakes, even her, but we have to do better for the sake of our whole community. And yes, I do believe Governor Gina Raimondo should wear her mask while delivering the message.