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R.I. Gov. McKee loosens COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, encourages following guidelines

Restaurant capacity increased indoors, outdoors, retail services can operate with higher density

Just ten days into his term, Gov. Dan McKee announced an “incremental advancement” plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions on businesses at a March 12 press briefing. The governor emphasized the importance of discipline and adherence to public health guidelines in safely opening the economy.

“We really need to have strong adherence to the protocols,” McKee said at the press briefing. 

Starting the day McKee made the announcement, indoor dining distancing requirements shifted from eight feet to six feet and bars were able to close at midnight, an hour later than before, under certain circumstances. Outdoor shopping capacity limits were also stripped away.

On March 19, indoor dining capacity will increase to 75 percent for restaurants, catered events and places of worship. Retail stores, gyms and personal services’ capacity will double, going from one person per 100 square feet to one person per 50 square feet.

During the briefing, the governor expressed support for farmers, garden shops and local businesses in these difficult times. 

Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott said in the press briefing that the state is headed in the right direction and that the goal is to maintain a similar trend after lifting business restrictions.

“Our data picture for Rhode Island continues to be a good one,” Alexander-Scott said. “Our statewide positivity rate hovers around two percent as it has for the last month.” She added that hospitalizations and fatalities among the older population have dropped significantly, but reminded the public of the importance of social distancing, masking, washing hands, getting tested and staying home when sick. 

For some local businesses, the loosened restrictions are a welcome change.

“As a small business owner, this was very great news for me because I feel like it is a step closer to bringing things back to how they were before the pandemic,” wrote Mike Boutros, owner of Mike's Calzones and Chinatown On Thayer, in a message to The Herald.

Boutros said that his businesses struggled after restrictions were first put in place. Limiting the number of customers allowed in restaurants led to long lines and frustrated customers, he said. Lifting the restrictions will increase business and allow more people into his restaurants, both of which are on Thayer Street, he added.

“I am hopeful that with Governor McKee’s new (loosened) restrictions we will be busier and more successful, welcoming both Brown students and customers overall back in,” Boutros wrote. 

Consultant Medical Director for RIDOH and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University Philip Chan said that the lifted restrictions were meant to help local businesses while still preserving public health.

Local businesses were hit hard by pandemic restrictions, he said. But from the public health standpoint, lifting restrictions can lead to increased cases if people are not vigilant, he added.

“It’s been a challenge the entire year in terms of balancing business and public health against the pandemic,” Chan said. “Obviously even from the public health standpoint, people’s livelihoods are on the line.”

“It’s always been a tough balance and no one really knows where the line is,” he said. “Things can open and we can be safe if people continue to adhere to public health measures that we’ve stated.”

Other small business owners told The Herald that the lifted restrictions will have little effect on how they operate.

Owner of Like No Udder Karen Krinsky said that the restrictions won’t affect her business, which is mostly take-out. Like No Udder currently serves ice cream and other vegan desserts and dishes through one of the shop’s windows. Krinsky said that she isn’t planning to open indoor dining again until she believes it’s safer to do so and when staff are vaccinated. 

“With the restrictions I could probably only fit five or six people in here,” Krinsky said. “When things get back to normal, I’ll probably serve out of the window and inside.”

Kenneth Loft, owner of Wickenden Pub, said the change in restrictions won’t have a significant impact on his bar’s operations because of its small size. The looser restrictions, which allow for tables to be closer together, have helped marginally increase capacity, allowing him to use an extra table, he said.  

“Our problem has never been the seating capacity, it’s always been spacing people out,” Loft said. He added that the bar is likely running at less than 50 percent capacity because of the limited space available and spacing restrictions. Because of the seating limitations, the bar often turns people away on busy nights, he said. 

But he added that the fast approaching summer and vaccine distribution both give him hope. “I also see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Loft said. 


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