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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Area business leaders said this week that shopping, dining and office work will look different when companies take cautious steps to reopen May 9 under Gov. Gina Raimondo’s multi-phase plan to reactivate the state’s economy, shut for more than a month because of the coronavirus.  

“Phase 1 is testing the waters, and things won’t look or feel much different than they do now,” Raimondo said. “Our lives aren’t going to change overnight. While we won’t be required to stay at home, we should still stay close to home as we slowly get back to work.”

Under Raimondo’s plan, non-critical retail stores that have been closed will be allowed to reopen in-person operations, including for limited in-person browsing. Pre-ordering and in-store pick-up will still be encouraged as the safest option.

Retailers will be able to have one person browsing for every 300 square feet of space. Every staff member and customer will need to wear a mask at all times.

Limited outdoor in-person seating options at restaurants will be allowed later in phase 1.  

“Getting back to some version of normal is going to be a slow process. It’s not going to happen at the beginning of phase 1, but we’re working to allow limited outdoor in-person seating options a bit further into our first phase,” Raimondo said.

Office workers are encouraged to still work from home, if they can, while managers prepare to eventually bring more employees back to work.

“That means doing things like developing staggered work schedules, preparing to screen employees to find out if they’re sick, closing common spaces like break rooms and making sure employees can be six feet apart,” Raimondo said. “This also means we’re going to need more frequent cleaning. I know most of our employers are already thinking about these things, and I appreciate their partnership and collaboration throughout this process.”

For health care in phase 1, anyone who has deferred health care needs, including well-visits and specialty care, should call their primary care provider. Telehealth is still the best option if possible. And visitation restrictions for nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living centers will continue.

Locally, businesses have said they are in uncharted waters, just as they were when the state began shutting down in mid-March.

“I think it is hard to predict mostly because we have never been here before,” Southern R.I. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Viele said. “If we open the economy slowly and there isn’t a huge spike, then we can continue to gradually open more. As conditions become known, we can react.”

Viele, who owns Liberty Rentals in Peace Dale, said from his Chamber of Commerce seat he has heard from member businesses and summer visitors.

“The businesses are looking for support and direction. Some of the visitors have already paid deposits on accommodations and are curious what will be open and what won’t,” he said. “If there is a slow opening and no real spike in the virus, then we will see a summer that is closer to normal, but it is hard to predict at this time how close.”

Viele said there have been surprises all along the way, and not just in business.

“When this started it was impossible to predict how deep and wide this would impact different sectors of our population. Early on,we couldn’t have seen that education would become what it has, or that many parts of our economy would be completely closed. What we have witnessed has been just how resilient and flexible we can be. Our business community has adjusted under very challenging conditions,” he said.

Businesses that are members have turned to the chamber as a resource as well.

“We collect the data on how our members are reacting and communicate it to the public,” Viele said. “We are providing direction on how to participate in the government help that is available. We are also available by phone to guide members through the maze of opportunities. We are in contact with the tourism businesses and their potential customers. We are seeing that we can help them connect, which is more important this year than ever before. The results of our efforts will be determined by the conditions as we move forward.”

North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kristin Urbach said shoppers and diners will return to a changed business environment.

“Due to the pandemic, our daily living routines and behaviors have changed as we adapt to the governor’s mandates that support the health and safety of the people,” Urbach said. “In this new environment, the summer will look very different from decades of past ones. As the restrictions begin to lift while safety and health measures remain in place, family and friends will be excited to reunite at social gatherings, restaurants, parks and other places.”

“Staycations” and drivable distance destinations within three hours will be on the rise, Urbach added.

“When people are planning their mini vacations, there will be a stronger focus on the cleanliness, space, size and security that is provided.”

Urbach also said there will be more outdoor dining and e-commerce options for shopping at local businesses in addition to outdoor activities.

“The local merchants are prepared as they have built robust e-commerce sites in order to continue to thrive throughout the pandemic and afterwards. Rhode Islanders are resilient and cherish their favorite places to dine, shop, visit and play.  As many of us are working from home and abiding by the stay-at-home orders, we’re treasuring those experiences now more than ever before and look forward to resuming them even in this new way of living.”

The Narragansett Chamber of Commerce posted a statement on the chamber’s website.

“Though these recent weeks have been some of the most difficult to navigate for our small businesses, we have seen such an outpouring of support and togetherness that continues to grow and evolve as we all do business differently,” the chamber said.

“Many businesses have created new ways of serving the community, whether it’s online ordering, curbside takeout, delivery, or other unique ways to keep the connection to Narragansett alive.”

The website offers a link to restaurants that offer takeout, delivery and no-contact pick-up.

“We will continue to share member menus and modifications to their services to help revitalize our business industry as we navigate these waters together,” the chamber said.

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