R.I.’s COVID-19 state of emergency one of a few remaining in nation

THE MCKEE ADMINISTRATION will keep the current disaster emergency declaration in place until its federal counterpart is ended on May 11. Pictured is Gov. Daniel J. McKee in June 2021 signing an Executive Order that mandated indoor masking in Rhode Island businesses and workplaces for 30 days. / PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

PROVIDENCE – It has been more than three years since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Rhode Island by then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo on March 1, 2020.

Eight days later, on March 9, 2020, Raimondo declared a state of emergency, beginning a massive governmental and public health response unprecedented in modern times.

And while the masking mandates, school closures, event cancellations and a host of other restrictions are now in Rhode Island’s rearview mirror, the state of emergency remains and will continue until the federal government ends its own emergency declarations on May 11.

Gov. Daniel J. McKee has repeatedly extended the original 2020 order; the latest extension was issued on Feb. 9 and is set to expire on March 11. McKee spokesperson Olivia Darocha confirmed that Rhode Island “plans to time the ending of its emergency declaration with the ending of the federal declaration as announced by President Biden.”

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According to state law, “The state of disaster emergency shall continue until the governor finds that the threat or danger has passed or the disaster has been dealt with to the extent that emergency conditions no longer exist.”  These orders last for 30 days unless renewed, and the General Assembly “may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time.”

Yet despite a return to normal, Rhode Island is one of five states still operating under a disaster emergency declaration, along with Texas, Illinois, Delaware and Colorado, according to the National Academy of State Health Policy, which tracks the status of state emergency declarations.

Delaware’s and Colorado’s orders are set to expire on March 3 and March 11, respectively, unless renewed, according to NASHP.

Much of the expanded emergency powers given to the governor relate to bureaucratic streamlining of public health measures, such as preventing price increases for protective health supplies. It also qualifies the state for a host of additional resources via federal assistance to expand social safety net programs and shore up public health infrastructure.

The continuation of these orders has become a political flashpoint marked by debate between civil liberties and public health advocates. Though these declarations give expanded powers to the chief of state, it has been almost a year since McKee employed any of them directly.

But opposition remains. State Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, has filed numerous bills seeking to terminate the emergency declaration, none of which have reached the House floor. These orders have become more of a formality than an abuse of power, he argued, but the continuations can make a “mockery” of state emergency law.

As he puts it, focusing only on this expanded if unutilized authority misses the point.

“The governors may not do some of things they are allowed to do, but that’s reading too much into it. You can’t show disrespect for the law. At this point, it’s become a farce,” he said.  “You can’t say we have a state of emergency for a disease when you have thousands of people packing into a stadium. It’s ridiculous and everyone knows it. The reality is most people are living normal lives now. And have been for a long time.”

As for the General Assembly, Senate communications director Greg Pare said Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio supports McKee’s decision to keep the order in place.

“There is no downside to it – there are no restrictions placed on Rhode Islanders – and the state receives considerable federal dollars as a result of it,” he said.  “The Senate president supports the state availing itself of every federal dollar possible to the benefit of Rhode Island residents.”

Asked if the state of emergency should have lasted more than three years, John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, said the organization does not have an official position.

“It doesn’t appear that the vast majority of states feel it is necessary to continue their states of emergency in place until the federal declaration continues,” he said.

Marion said it’s important to remember these emergency powers were given to McKee by the General Assembly by statute, and they “could amend the statute to limit gubernatorial power in future emergencies.”

“But there doesn’t seem to be much political appetite for doing that right now,” he said. “Compared to other states, our legislature was far more deferential to the executive branch throughout the pandemic.”

Newberry acknowledged that state of emergency orders can be an important public policy tool to effectively respond to natural or manmade disasters. The conflict arises by keeping decrees in place longer than necessary.

“We can quibble about when the emergency ended,” he said. “But certainly, it’s been over for a long time. A state of emergency is supposed to be temporary. It’s not supposed to last for three years.”

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may contact him at Allen@PBN.com.





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