CORONAVIRUS

Tiny East Coast Island Begs Outsiders To Stay Away Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Tourism fuels the economy of Block Island, Rhode Island, but residents worry visitors seeking refuge from the pandemic could strain the town's limited resources.
An empty Crescent Beach on Block Island on March 26.
An empty Crescent Beach on Block Island on March 26.

About 10 miles off the coast of mainland Rhode Island, nestled in between Montauk and Martha’s Vineyard, lies the tiny porkchop-shaped jewel of Block Island.

The island’s only township, New Shoreham, relies almost entirely on summer tourism to fuel its economy, and come spring, residents are typically welcoming visitors back with open arms. But this year, as the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, many of the town’s roughly 1,000 year-rounders are pleading with outsiders to stay away until the dust settles.

“Our problem is that the medical center out here has one doctor with basically one hospital bed,” said Rick Lysik, who owns Club Soda, one of the island’s couple dozen or so restaurants. “So if anything happens, we’re automatically overwhelmed.”

“We love the tourists, and when this is all over, we would love their business and support,” he added. “But the doctor put it well the other day: Once the seal is broken, it’s broken.”

Tensions have come to a head in recent weeks as residents, many of whom are older and more vulnerable to COVID-19, debate the best path forward for keeping the island virus-free for as long as possible. On Monday, the town council issued a shelter-in-place order effective through April 15 that limits restaurants and bars to takeout service and prohibits most construction workers from entering sites.

An empty Water Street is seen on Block Island on March 26.
An empty Water Street is seen on Block Island on March 26.

The order also strongly discourages nonresidents from traveling to the island and asks full-time residents to leave only for essential purposes, such as medical care. Anyone arriving on the island must self-quarantine for two weeks. Violating any of the provisions outlined in the emergency declaration is punishable by a maximum fine of $500 or up to 30 days behind bars.

Andre Boudreau, the town council’s second warden, said the body relied heavily on guidance from Mark Clark, the island’s only medical doctor, when crafting the declaration. Clark did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

“Our doctor has indicated to us that it’s all about the restriction of travel,” Boudreau said. “The message we’re sending everybody is simply that right now Block Island is absolutely not the place to be.”

But while some residents fight to keep visitors away during the pandemic, some are still turning up anyway, likely eager to escape to a more remote location as major metropolitan areas within driving distance face outbreaks.

On Saturday, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. rose to more than 25,000, a parade of cars streamed off the ferry boat and onto Water Street, the island’s modest but central thoroughfare lined with shops, inns and restaurants.

Some of the cars, many with New York and Connecticut license plates, made a beeline straight to the post office or the grocery store, where an already-limited supply of items has thinned out in recent weeks.

A couple of people held up signs along Water Street as the cars drove past.

“Now off to stay put in your ‘residence’ for two weeks right?? With Love, The People,” read one woman’s sign, apparently directed at those who own second homes on the island.

“Please don’t hoard food from our ONLY grocery store. You made it! Congrats,” said another’s.

Workers stock shelves at Block Island's only year-round grocery store on March 26. Posted rules limit the number of visits pe
Workers stock shelves at Block Island's only year-round grocery store on March 26. Posted rules limit the number of visits per day.

In the summer, the island’s population balloons to roughly 20,000 and the grocery store stocks up to meet the demand. But in the quiet winter months, orders are less frequent, and residents are concerned outsiders will snatch up the supply.

Jennifer Seebeck, who has lived on the island year-round for more than 20 years, said she’s heard of some people taking the ferry over, stocking up at the grocery store and then heading back to the mainland the same day.

“The grocery store is having a hard time keeping up,” Seebeck said.

‘We’re All At Risk Here’

It’s not just about supplies ― residents are also worried their small island couldn’t meet the need for medical care should the coronavirus hit hard there. More than half the year-round residents are age 60 and older, one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to Block Island Tourism Council Director Jessica Willi.

As of Wednesday, the island’s lone medical center said it had received “very few test kits to be selectively used for high risk individuals.”

Plus, there are limited ways to get off the island if the situation becomes dire. Block Island’s single-runway airport consists of a small terminal and a popular diner called Bethany’s. Both flights and the ferry can be canceled because of weather.

“We don’t have any medical resources and if the ferry’s not running because the weather’s bad, people getting sick here can’t get to a hospital,” said Sue Black, who has lived on the island for over 40 years. “If it’s really windy, the boat can’t run. If it’s foggy, the planes can’t fly.”

Black, who has an autoimmune disorder, said she plans to leave the island if the weather forecast starts looking bad.

“We’re all at risk here,” she said.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said during a news conference Tuesday that she’s not closing off the borders to the state’s coastal communities, but encouraged out-of-towners to quarantine themselves should they come.

“New York City is obviously a hot spot,” said Raimondo, adding that she supports local officials who want to “take the action that they think is necessary to keep their community safe.”

Supplies arrive via ferry to Block Island on March 26.
Supplies arrive via ferry to Block Island on March 26.

On Block Island, some residents wanted the town to shut down the main mode of transportation to the island ― a ferry boat service that departs out of Point Judith ― but soon learned that was easier said than done. The town has no control over the ferry, which is privately owned and must coordinate with the state’s public utilities commission.

The ferry company announced Wednesday, however, that it was temporarily slashing the number of boats to just one in each direction most days.

Persephone Brown, a local business owner, was one of the first year-round residents to pressure the town council to take action weeks ago. She said she had wanted the ferry shut down completely, but quickly realized it was out of the council’s hands and may not have been the best solution anyway.

“I was very frustrated,” she said of what she considered to be the town’s slow response to the threat of the virus. “The town council wasn’t completely in agreement of the risks initially.”

Brown, who owns Persephone’s Kitchen, a cafe not far from the harbor where the ferries typically drop off vacationers by the hundreds in July and August, was seeing more and more people arriving to the island earlier this month. She feared a dangerous situation could be brewing.

“We were seeing a lot of faces we didn’t recognize,” she said. “People at the grocery store, people out on the Greenway trails, people out to dinner. … Each person has to do what’s right for them, but when they arrive they need to follow the proper protocol and self-quarantine.”

‘Save Summer’

The fear that second homeowners “seeking refuge” from the virus will unintentionally bring it along with them is shared by many full-time residents. But year-rounders also recognize the importance of their seasonal neighbors, who collectively contribute a majority of the town’s total tax revenue.

“They have every right to be here just like everyone else does,” said Cariona Davis, a year-round resident who owns Block Island Accommodations, a boutique hotel and bed and breakfast management firm.

“Block Island is not immune to this,” she said of the virus. “Whether they come here or not, it’s going to eventually hit here just like everywhere else in the world. ... It could come on an Amazon box.”

A package delivery service on the island loads deliveries from companies like Amazon on March 26.
A package delivery service on the island loads deliveries from companies like Amazon on March 26.

Even if they understand why it happened, some residents are concerned about the effect the shelter-in-place order will have on the local economy.

Seebeck works as a bartender during the summer and her husband is a carpenter. Under the new shelter-in-place order, he’s barred from working on the island until April 15. She knows the town council had everyone’s health and safety in mind. But the lack of income is stressful.

“There’s definitely a group of people out here who are kind of panic-stricken about how are they going to support their families,” she said. “Many construction workers are sole breadwinners. ... These are some tough men who are feeling kind of helpless.”

Willi, the Block Island tourism council director, said the organization is “fully behind” the town’s shelter-in-place order, suggesting it’s an uncomfortable but necessary action to “save summer” and protect the community.

Though many of the island’s small businesses could survive if March, April and May were a collective dud, they would be financially devastated if June, July and August didn’t bring the usual number of customers, Willi said.

“We’re all hopeful that we’ve got a summer season ahead of us,” Willi said. “It was a really tough decision. It affects the islanders just as much as it affects tourists. We’re all pitching in to make it better in the end.”

Boudreau, the town council’s second warden, said he recognizes the sacrifices made on everyone’s part but had little choice.

“Some people are pissed, but we’ve just got to do what we got to do now, and take it seriously,” he said. “We can’t afford to be complacent. We’re so small and we could lose so much.”

Michael-Aaron Capps, who has lived on the island every summer for nearly 15 years, was a bit taken aback when some of his friends there advised him not to come to the island to ride out the pandemic. He is immunocompromised and is eager to flee New York City, where he lives during the winters.

A rock painted with the message "Please Stay Home" in New Shoreham, Rhode Island, on March 26.
A rock painted with the message "Please Stay Home" in New Shoreham, Rhode Island, on March 26.

In the warmer months, he resides on Block Island, where he owns and operates Clayhead Salon & Spa, located on the top floor of the post office building.

“I was surprised a little bit at first but ... I get it now,” Capps said of suggestions he stay away from the island for now. “They all know I live in New York City and they all know that shit is going down here.”

He said he’s 100% behind trying to stop tourists from visiting ― “Why would they want to do that now anyway?” he asked ― but asking people with second homes on the island to stay away is trickier territory.

“It kind of makes this sleepy fishing town into a New York of its own if there are people coming from all over,” he said.

For Brown and so many other residents hoping the virus never reaches their shores, the chance that there could still be a strong summer around the corner is something to hold onto.

“I feel like no matter what situation we’re in, we’re the fortunate ones,” said Brown, who is spending much of her time these days helping her two children with the school’s remote learning programs. “We get to live in a community-driven, beautiful environment.”

“I’m hoping that I can just kind of skate by this summer,” she continued. “I’m not looking to make any big moves or take any vacations. I’m hoping that I can pay the business’s bills and my basic needs, and trying not to focus too much on anything worse than that.”

UPDATE: April 5 — At least one person on the island has tested positive for the virus, the Block Island Times reported. The patient — a resident in their 70s ― alerted the medical center of their symptoms on Wednesday. 

“The patient was subsequently admitted to the ICU at a major mainland medical center and is currently in serious but stable condition,” reported the BI Times. “The Medical Center is actively tracing and testing contacts.”


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