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RI begins pulling over all out-of-state drivers after Cuomo threat

Richmond, R.I.— After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue Rhode Island for pulling over and questioning New York drivers, state troopers and the National Guard halted the process for a time Sunday before restarting it by pulling over all out-of-state drivers and informing them of a mandatory coronavirus quarantine.

A large contingent of Rhode Island state troopers and National Guard personnel congregated at a rest stop near Exit 2 of I-95 northbound in Richmond on Sunday. For a while, a large, illuminated sign that had been telling New York drivers to exit at the rest stop had been turned off and troopers said they were awaiting instructions. About 2 p.m. it was turned back on, with instructions for all out-of-state drivers to enter the rest stop: "All non-Rhode Island passenger vehicles next exit," the sign read. A steady stream of drivers then began pulling into the rest stop and were questioned by National Guard personnel.

Drivers were waved toward one of two lanes separated by cones by National Guard personnel. Drivers then rolled their windows down and answered questions from National Guard members. The first question was: "Are you staying in Rhode Island, or just passing through?" If passing through, people were asked where they're headed and then waved through. If people were staying in Rhode Island, the National Guard member asked for their name, phone number and address so that the State Department of Health could follow up and make sure they are self-quarantining.

State troopers and National Guard personnel said the checkpoints are voluntary. As was the case with New York drivers over the weekend, if out-of-state motorists ignore the sign telling them to pull over, police may pull them over past the rest area and urge them to stop at the next checkpoint. But there's nothing that can be done if they don't stop.

Debbie Phelen of Massachussetts said it was a quick process.

"They had us roll the window down and asked where we're going," Phelen said. "When we said Massachusetts, our home, they let us go through."

Other out-of-state drivers had similar experiences to Phelen. State troopers at the rest stop between Exits 2 and 3 said on Sunday that people have been politely complying with the requests for information.

While the checkpoint looks imposing, with National Guard personnel wearing masks and dressed in camouflage and vests, state troopers said the checkpoints are meant as a warning to be safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered state troopers to pull over drivers with plates from New York, the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus pandemic, to question them about where they would be located in the state and inform them of a mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving.

She also had the National Guard begin to go door-to-door in coastal towns such as Westerly to see if people had arrived from New York. National Guard personnel were also dispatched to T.F. Green Airport along with bus and train stations to speak with people arriving from New York.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the action unconstitutional. Cuomo, who threatened to sue Rhode Island over the issue, said he called Raimondo to discuss it Saturday night.

Raimondo issued a new order Saturday that implemented a quarantine order for “any person coming to Rhode Island by any mode of transportation after visiting another state for a non-work-related purpose.”

Such an order could pose an issue in border towns such as Stonington where many people cross into Westerly to shop, buy gas, visit family or order take-out food.

State police said they would also be stopping drivers at Route 78 and 1 in Westerly.

"We will not let New Yorkers be discriminated against," Cuomo tweeted Sunday. "Rhode Island will no longer be stopping New Yorkers at their border. We thank Rhode Island for their cooperation in repealing this executive order."

Cuomo's tweet was at odds with current practice, as all out-of-state vehicles are being stopped rather than solely New Yorkers. The tweet was deleted soon after.

s.spinella@theday.com

j.wojtas@theday.com

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