Restaurants, a driver and attraction for local tourism, are getting focused attention of local appointed and elected officials as the Memorial Day weekend nears to kick-off a coronavirus-haunted summer season.
Across South County, towns are getting ready to face an uncertain summer season normally filled with increased traffic, out-of-towners bulging the rental market and visitors, tourists and day trippers coming for seafood and water views at a favorite restaurant.
“The state is starting to open things up. Narragansett must do the same and lift unnecessary restrictions. While the fear of the unknown virus will not go away, we have to consider all aspects of a functioning and free society now that the virus has been with us for months,” said Matt Mannix, town council president in Narragansett.
Agreeing with him is Greg Mancini, North Kingstown Town Council president.
“The common issue for the municipalities is to figure out how to be as creative as possible to allow businesses and restaurants to maximize their business and seating opportunities while being within the governor’s guidelines,” he said.
Looking at the local revenue benefit for owners who depend on the tourists, Abel Collins, South Kingstown Town Council president, said, “For many businesses in our area, it’s (the) tourist season that generates the biggest share of annual profits.”
“Hopefully as the economy is reopened in stages, we’ll be able to develop a sense for just how much customer traffic is going to be impacted, and the restaurants can avoid the risk of spending a lot of money to prepare for customers that aren’t around,” he added about the question that is bugging most business owners today.
Keeping this idea in mind along with innovative strategies, towns are looking at different ways to help.
“Some restaurants are going to find it hard to have sufficient space at their current locations to seat enough customers that they’ll be able to succeed. In those cases, the towns and the state must step in and help provide accessible outdoor space as much as possible,” said Collins.
He added that some time may be needed to resolve the staging for remote dining locations while restaurants with ready access to large parking lots and other open spaces will have a big advantage in successfully reopening.
For instance, the South Kingstown Town Council Monday evening, in effect, gave Town Manager Robert Zarnetske permission under an emergency order to help local businesses with regulatory matters so that limited outdoor dining can begin next week.
It also gave him permission to look at different ways, which would follow state policies, for using any other outdoor facilities, such as town parks, parking lots and other areas for restaurants to set up stand-alone food pick-up services.
In addition, he is pulling together a plan for using a variety of public spaces, and parking lots as well as commercial building rooftops and any other place in which people could gather in socially-distanced ways to enjoy dining with food from restaurants delivering it to them.
Included is a no-fee streamlined three-day approval process for restaurants needing alterations to handle outdoor only dining. Councilman Joseph Viele thought that a blanket approval should be given for all restaurants and that the council should monitor for problems if they arise.
However, the board retained control and Zarnetske said, “We are going to get these approved as quickly as they come in…I understand we cannot be in the way here.”
Town officials in Narragansett and North Kingstown are also looking at innovative approaches within these guidelines to help restaurant owners.
Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney said he’s also working with town businesses, restaurants and the Chamber of Commerce on plans for expanded curbside and outdoor dining as well as to assist them with doing it.
In North Kingstown, Town Manager Ralph Mollis said he has set up an internal team to review local and state laws to obtain some legal guidance about temporarily removing or lessen some of the restrictions for businesses.
“I’ve also participated in several calls with managers and mayors from throughout Rhode Island to review best practices. We are awaiting some additional information from the Governor’s Office and the Department of Business Regulations as to the restrictions,” he said.
Accenting Mollis’s approach, North Kingstown’s Mancini said, “As it relates to municipalities, we need to figure out how we can safely and within the governor’s guidelines maximize business opportunities for our local restaurants. To do that we are going to look at sidewalk and/or parking lot table set ups.”
Officials said they recognize that both residents and business owners have been patient with a near-shutdown of activity every day for most of the past two months.
They said that as summer beckons, business owners and their customers want to return to a traditional summer as in past years.
“At the start of the pandemic, I asked the people of Narragansett for patience as health experts advised us on how to contain the virus,” said Council President Mannix.
“That patience exhibited by so many is now being replaced with hope that we will get back to normal as summer begins. I am very hopeful that the town can be up and running by the traditional start of the summer season — Memorial Day Weekend,” he said.