Governor Raimondo announced Wednesday that the state will further limit social gatherings from 25 to 15 people—marking a partial reversion to phase two guidelines. Raimondo says the gradual increase of COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island prevented the state from moving on to phase four as previously planned. Rhode Island has been in phase three since early July. 

The Department of Health attributed the higher rate of spread to oversized, informal social gatherings, particularly among the state’s youth.

“We’re partying too much,” Governor Raimondo said, pointing to Rhode Islanders in their twenties and early thirties. In the past few weeks, the percentage of tests that are positive has spiked among the state’s younger population. The Department of Health reported that when contacting partiers, many admitted that they could have done a better job with social distancing and mask-wearing.

The state’s bars have added to the problem, failing to comply with social distancing requirements, Raimondo added. Last week, state inspectors visited around 150 bars and found roughly a third were allowing crowding. In phase three, bars must operate like restaurants, serving drinks to seated customers. The Department of Business regulation reported that several bars—operating in “egregious” violation of guidelines—were ordered to temporarily shut down. Raimondo has pledged to crack down on bars this week with more inspections and more stringent enforcement including temporary shutdowns.

“The grace period is over,” Raimondo said. “If you’re not following the rules, we’re going to shut you down.”

Existing regulations for restaurants and other businesses will remain the same.

Governor Raimondo also released Rhode Island’s benchmarks for school reopening plans today. With little more than a month before public K-12 schools are set to reopen in Rhode Island, the state provided more clarity on the information officials will use to determine just what that reopening looks like. 

That includes certain benchmarks, like the amount of face masks and cleaning supplies districts must have at their disposal, and the availability of reliable testing. The state will also use weekly municipal-level rates of the virus to determine to what extent students and teachers will return to school buildings. 

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on Rhode Island’s more densely populated, diverse areas, which means cities like Central Falls and Pawtucket could face major setbacks to reopening their schools. Department of Health Director, Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott, says the hardest hit cities will receive extra resources to ensure that children in these areas have the same access to education. 

“It’s going to be very customized, community by community,” Governor Raimondo said.

The governor has also pledged to allow parents the choice of in-person or online classes for their children, at least for the first few weeks. But Raimondo made her own position clear.

“We know that being in school is best for our kids.” Raimondo said. “It’s better for their brain development, their academic development, their mental health, and their physical health.” 

The state’s pediatricians have reported an increase in depression and poor nutrition among school-aged kids since distance learning began. 

The state has seen several recent spikes of over 100 new cases reported in a single day  in the past week. Yesterday, the state-wide positivity rate rose to roughly 3 percent.

“If we can keep ourselves at about 60 cases [per 100,000 people] a week or lower, we can have a reasonable, thoughtful discussion around how we get children back to school,” Raimondo said. 

Last week, Rhode Island had 630 new cases, or 59 new cases per 100,000 people. And Raimondo’s warned that if the rate increases, in-person school will be less feasible for the fall.