‘One of the safest places,’ B.I. tries to keep coronavirus out

THE BLOCK ISLAND Ferry, above sitting idle in Old Harbor, is still operating despite island residents being ordered to stay home until April 15 to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. /PBN PHOTO BY CASSIUS SHUMAN

NEW SHOREHAM – Now largely confined to their homes despite no positive COVID-19 cases reported on Block Island, residents are concerned about both the looming health threat and the shutdown of commerce ahead of a normally thriving tourist season.

An emergency ordinance passed by the Block Island Town Council on Monday night calls for everyone on the island to shelter in place until April 15 and only leave their homes for essential activities or face stiff fines and penalties.

After Nantucket issued a stay-at-home order on March 22 in response to a case of coronavirus being reported, Block Island officials say they had to limit traffic to the island and activity within its community.

Located 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, Block Island is heavily trafficked by ferry and airplane, making it vulnerable to spread of the disease. So approximately 1,000 year-round residents are hunkered down, sheltered in place, wondering if the pandemic will subside in time so they will be able to operate their summer businesses.

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“We are uneasy,” said John Cullen, a Block Island resident for the past 20 years and island business owner, who noted that it’s strange having to keep a safe distance from friends and neighbors.

“We can only control the things in our control,” he said. “We’re supportive of what the Town Council did. I hope the governor understands that Block Island is unique. You hate to shut down commerce, but we needed to take drastic steps because of our limited medical resources.”

Cullen and his wife, Sarah, own and operate three stores during the summer season on Water Street in The National Hotel, called Block Island Tees, Solstice and True North Outfitters. “It’s a tough situation, because we need to be open, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re hoping, best-case scenario, that we’re open for July and August. We have had to put all orders on hold until we have a better idea of what’s happening.”

Cullen painted a picture of a Block Island changed by the virus, with few people inside the grocery store, which he says has kept shelves stocked. He says people have behaved in a civil manner.

Prior to passage of the emergency ordinance, his family had been “getting out every day and walking around and getting fresh air.” Now they’re largely confined to sheltering in place, an atypical activity for island residents.

“The mood on the island is: We’re not sure of what is going to happen,” he said. “Things are not getting back to normal.”

Socha Cohen, a 12-year island resident and member of the Planning Board, said, “This whole ordeal feels completely surreal to me. My anxiety level is high. I can feel the stress, but intellectually I am calm. What creates the anxiety is not seeing the end of the tunnel. If you follow the data things will only get worse before they get better.”

“I have been in contact with my family members off island and have made arrangements to support them because they are not getting any income at this time,” she said. “Luckily I am able to provide for them. I worry about the people who stand to lose their homes because they can’t make their mortgage payments.”

Cohen hasn’t left her house after being self-quarantined following a trip to an off-island store to stock up for three months but senses an “uneasiness” among residents. “The island is probably one of the safest places to be right now, but there is concern about the threat from an influx of visitors, tourists and workers.”

Bill McCombe, co-director of Block Island’s Emergency Management team, said, “There is concern among residents that their resources, such as food and essential supplies, will be overwhelmed by an influx of people. People are nervous. What compounds all of this is people who are returning to the island after spending the winter elsewhere, as well as people returning to open their summer homes.”

Second Warden André Boudreau said during the March 22 council meeting that, “We have no ability to test people coming over, so that is the weak link. We can’t stop the ferries from coming. People have said shut the ferry down for two to three weeks. We are doing the best we can to protect the public within the legal framework that we have. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

McCombe, who is also director of security for the Block Island Ferry, noted that the ferry “provides a lifeline service for the town, and we have a partnership with the town because of that.”

He said the ferry and the airline are operating because they are regulated by the state and federal government. “They are monitoring what we have put in place to address the virus,” he said, noting that the ferry company has “taken extra safety measures” regarding its fleet.

As for the hotels and inns on the island, Boudreau said he spoke with Realtors who told him that they have been receiving cancellations regarding rentals.

Cindy Pappas, a Realtor at Sullivan Sotheby’s International Realty on Water Street, said her agency has “had six cancellations out of 1,000 bookings” for the season. “Most people are being calm about it and adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

“We are concerned how the season will be impacted,” she acknowledged. “Hopefully, some sense of normalcy will reign by mid-June. I’m optimistic,” she said. “People love Block Island and are good about rolling with the punches.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer and researcher. He can be reached at shuman@pbn.com.

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