As the state plans to soon allow increased numbers of people to mingle in public places large and small, mixed reviews come from local businesses about the benefits to them while others welcome the changes.
“It brings more potential, but it comes with more responsibility,” said Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, about the increased sanitizing and need to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing.
Some restaurants and other food services say the increased numbers only marginally help because social distancing already puts limits on patrons allowed. Funeral homes, meanwhile, see opportunity for wakes and graveside services to have more mourners.
Gov. Gina Raimondo announced recently that she will be loosening some previous tight restrictions residents have faced in any number and kinds of establishments.
The plan looks at “social gatherings” and “places of public interaction,” with the governor noting that the first is when many people know each other while the second – and broader term – refers to being with many others in public places like restaurants, stores and gyms.
For indoor social gatherings, the limit is 50 to 75 people. Meanwhile, outdoor social gatherings can have a maximum of 75 to 150 people. Depending on virus spread, these numbers could increase in August to 100 for indoors and 250 for outdoors.
Then there are places of public interactions, such as museums, restaurants, entertainment sites, stores, houses of worship, beaches, and other similar large-scale operations. These will be limited to two-thirds their normal capacity or one person per 100 square feet of space and will include tattoo parlors, nail salons, hair cutters and other “close contact” businesses.
The state Department of Health, though, continued to advise caution and vigilance, noting this is not an all-clear signal.
“As people start getting out more and interacting with more people, it is more important than ever that we continue to take the same basic prevention measures we have been talking about for weeks and months,” said Joseph Wendelken, DOH spokesman.
“That means wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, washing your hands regularly, and staying home if you are sick. The virus is still in Rhode Island. We need to be as vigilant as ever,” he said.
The precautions Wendelken mentions are familiar to them, but also pose limitations despite the relaxing of some restrictions.
“It’s one thing to say we can now have a 150 people,” said Peg Fradette, executive director of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce. “But, there are all kinds of problems associated with monitoring and controlling the crowds of people to ensure they follow other restrictions, masks and social distancing that haven’t been changed lifted.”
Taking a similar — somewhat humorous view — Donna DiCicco at the Narragansett Towers, said, “To be honest, I’m not quite sure” about the effects of loosened restrictions on us. “She hasn’t told us if people can dance yet.”
DiCicco coordinates the rental of the large and historic rooms where many social events, weddings and other functions are held in the arching remnant of the 1886 Narragansett Pier Casino.
She said that she is pessimistic about the new rules allowing increased numbers of people helping improve her operations. She said all events at The Towers have been canceled for the 2020 summer and she waiting to see if there’s more virus spread and whether fears calm down before canceling August and fall weddings, the only events remaining on her calendar.
“Invitations for almost anything in the summer and fall go out 60 to 90 days before. You’re running out of time here,” she said.
Kevin Durfee, owner of George’s of Galilee restaurant in Narragansett, said the expanded numbers of people won’t help his business.
He said that he’s already at 37 percent of his capacity and that cannot change due to social distancing requirements. He added that even if that requirement was removed, he still faces problems from a shortage of help limiting capacity.
Many workers who usually seek a job in the summer this year now have a boost in unemployment compensation. The extra money, along with some fears about working with the public, influence these people to avoid taking a job right now, he said.
Optimism Among Others
Since March, the Contemporary Theater on Main Street in Wakefield, has remained shut due to attendance limits and social distancing. Outside the theater is a spacious patio often used in the summer for performances and now front and center for planning some kind of reopening, said Terry Simpson, president of the theater’s board of directors.
CTC is looking at some specific events, but are still reviewing the kinds of events that would make use of the patio alongside the theater and adjacent to the Saugatucket River, he said, adding that more details are expected shortly.
Local funeral homes are also welcoming the opportunity for more people to gather both inside and outside.
A spokesman for Nardolillo Funeral Home in Cranston and Narragansett, said that the increases in people allowed to gather will help restore wakes, funerals and burials to near pre-COVID attendance numbers for most bereaved families.
Some large and small local retailers and grocery stores are avoiding major changes despite that more people could enter their stores, but may make some adjustments. They said they remain focused on health issues for employees and those visiting their stores.
“The loosened restrictions may not affect our store significantly. We will still control the number of shoppers to reduce congestion points within the store,” said Susan Hoopes, a spokeswoman for Belmont grocery store in Wakefield.
“At Belmont Market, our main priority has been to provide an environment that focuses on the safety and well-being of our associates and customers,” she said, noting that the store has looked at increased patron limits and found that waiting “a minute or two outdoors rather than bottleneck indoors” provides a better shopping experience.
Ocean State Job Lot, a much larger retailer located not far from Belmont, had a similar reaction.
“Other than moderating our store capacity limits, not much will change for us. We’ve begun testing a slight expansion of store operating hours in select markets to see if there is any change to our customers’ shopping patterns as restaurants and malls reopen for business,” said Paul Cox, director of store operations, of Ocean State Job Lot.
Viele, of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said that he also thinks the banquet business might see a boost from the changes in number of people allowed together. More people will be able to gather in outdoor settings, perhaps even under tents, and that affects scores of businesses connected to serving the banquet industry.
He said that if reported COVID 19 infections and deaths continue to drop then comfort levels may increase for getting together in large groups.
Some people may now quickly try to have a baby shower, reunion, weddings and other social gatherings where numbers can often be under 150 people attending, said Viele, former owner of a local business renting tents and other equipment to party planners.
“This creates some opportunity for those industries, but it’s not going to happen the first week of July. These things take time,” he said, “and watching what the virus does.”