COVID-19

The economic impacts of Covid are severe. My chief concerns are for those households that are already cost-burdened with their housing [1] and for our businesses which suffered the natural gas outage and its aftermath last year. People are at risk of going under. The city is not in a position to provide the necessary funds to bridge those gaps, but we can certainly do everything in our power to ensure that the virus doesn’t take over in Newport. To that end, I try to see the opportunities offered by Covid to do things differently. I’m exploring ways to increase foot traffic to our businesses and restaurants with experimental street closures on the model of the Broadway Street Fair, and am open to ideas from the business community. This would allow our restaurants to increase their capacity and get close to making a profit. We also need to explore additional ways to feed our population, perhaps by fostering more support for community gardens, and reducing food waste.

As for restricting the spread of Covid, I’ve been a leader in the city’s response to the pandemic. To support our tourism industry I presented the resolution to require masks on our busy streets, and I organized the Zorro Brigade, a band volunteers who are out on America’s Cup, Thames, Bellevue and the Cliff Walk, passing out masks provided by the City, on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I don’t believe those who work in the tourist industry should have to be on the front line asking people to put masks on, just to be safe at work. I believe we have a responsibility to protect these workers. 

I’d like to promote marketing Newport as a safe destination for people who are ready to travel as long as they can feel safe. To that end, we should ramp up testing capability to allow for weekly testing of those working in the hospitality industry. When we have that in place we should advertise that in the region to promote tourism.  This would set Newport apart as a tourist destination. 

MY OWN WORK ON MASKS

By late May it was clear that day-trippers were coming to Newport, flaunting the stay-at-home orders put in place by their own governors.  Governor Raimondo had declared a state of emergency, Newport had declared its own state of emergency, and under RI General Laws our City Manager has both the power and the duty to act with respect to emergency management.  I spearheaded the resolution to require masks between noon and 10 pm on our busy streets, and after I introduced it for the second time it passed, 6-1.  The next day our City Manager, Joe Nicholson, issued the Executive Order, and I sent out an email to those on my list asking for volunteers. That very first weekend the Zorro Brigade came into being.  Read on:

THE LEGEND OF THE ZORRO BRIGADE

Origin Story

There was trouble in the land . . . the townfolk were hiding in their homes, fearful of the plague, hoarding toilet paper.  When warm weather would visit the city, outsiders who cared little for the residents’ well-being would descend on the city to view its wonders, spending freely, which was good, and breathing freely with no masks to protect the locals from exposure, which was not good. That is when the brave city council stepped up to protect the residents and encourage safe passage for all on the streets of Newport . . .

I introduced a resolution in late May because we needed to declare to our visitors that it was simply impossible to assure social distancing on America’s Cup and Thames and Bellevue.  As to enforceability, the idea was always to influence people’s behavior rather than collect fines.  Positive messaging was the way to go.  I knew I had interested folks ready to volunteer to pass out masks, and the City Manager worked hard to accommodate with everything from masks to tables to sandwich boards and literature. 

And to give credit where credit is due:  on the very first weekend volunteer John Gobis called out to a passerby “these masks are approved by Zorro” and the Zorro Brigade was born.

Derring-do

On the weekends of June 12-14 and 19-21 we were out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with locations at Perrotti Park, Bowen’s Wharf, and the Armory on Thames Street.  Stalwart volunteers hawked masks like carnival barkers, with “Thank you for wearing a mask!” to “Do you need a mask?” to “You need a mask – we’ve got ‘em here, for free!”  As people walked by we called “It’s the rule, noon to 10 on these busy streets!”  We noticed perhaps 30% compliance the first weekend, climbing to roughly 50% compliance by the second weekend.  People seemed to appreciate knowing it was the rule.

For the Fourth of July weekend, Joe Nicholson ordered 15 more sandwich boards, and literature that dropped the word “please.”  We were out in force on America’s Cup and Thames on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  We started commenting on people’s creative fashion choices, and noticed closer to 80% compliance 

We’re still doing this, and we’ve had fun.  Over time, we’ve had more people thanking us for being out there, both locals and tourists.  Each shift a volunteer has heard a comment about how it’s a government conspiracy, or something similar.  The most galling that I heard was “If you’re so scared just go home!”  But this is our home and we’re not scared! 

Legacy

We’ve been ahead of the curve.  The science bears out the theory that it’s the airborne droplets that we need to fear.  We want to protect our businesses as they seek to stay open in these abnormal times, and we want our residents to feel comfortable coming to their downtown area.  The harsh reality is that people who aren’t wearing masks aren’t in a position to help our economy as most financial transactions require that the customer wear a mask!

The effort has gained council support, dedicated volunteers, and of course, Kudos go to Joe Nicholson for consistently stepping into the breach and anticipating our needs in all of this.


[1]           According to RI Housing figures for 2019, 45% of households who rent in Newport are cost-burdened, and 28% of households who own are cost-burdened.  Cost-burdened means that a household spends more than 30% of its income on housing costs. 

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