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Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee, shown here during a tour of a vaccination clinic at Electric Boat in North Kingstown Wednesday morning, spoke with the Independent this week about the state’s plans to roll back the vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions in late May.

Gov. Dan McKee told The Independent this week that helping the state’s small businesses — noting especially those in tourism-dependent South County — anchors his strategy to throw open the doors Memorial Day weekend on the state’s re-opening.

 Beginning May 28, South County — and the rest of the state —  will return to a “near normal,” ending over a year of many state-imposed restrictions.

 “South County is right in the middle of that. It’s going to benefit by jumping up the date from early June to Memorial Day,” the governor said during a one-on-one interview Tuesday about how he wants his policies to help revive the region’s struggling small businesses and invite residents and tourists to engage once again in activities.

 

Helping Revive South County

McKee explained, “We wanted to make sure there was advance notice on it. We know that many of the festivals happen and many of these music events take weeks to organize. So that’s why I saw that as an important factor in coming out early with this date.”

He said he also saw the early and bold announcement as a calling card to tourists thinking of places to go. He said he wanted tourists’ planning to include Rhode Island and for them to know that it is safe to visit and free of most restrictions.

While an overnight turnaround isn’t expected, he said, he at least wants to create momentum.

It would help businesses trying to boost revenues, workers wanting jobs, residents seeking a return to pre-pandemic lifestyles and visitors looking to travel. Their spending benefits business, state and local government coffers.

“Not everything is going to be as full as it has been in the past, but it will be great to make sure we keep our traditions alive,” McKee added.

The governor emphasized he understood the plight of the local tourist-dependent economy in South County. He said he had come to South County often as lieutenant governor and his interest in basketball brings him to the University of Rhode Island to watch games.

Restaurants and retail have fought to remain afloat throughout the last 13 months of restrictions and virus fears, especially during a summer season that failed to deliver needed cash flow for operating costs alone.

“There’s been a lot of economic struggle that has gone on in Rhode Island, in particular in South County,” he said about his wanting the state to offer help through various grants, such as the RI Small Business Relief program with a closing date this week for applications.

 

Not Enough Workers

One continuing problem is the lack of workers for jobs. McKee said the issue affects all of Rhode Island and is a national problem, too.

Many area business and restaurant owners have reported a scarcity of help to serve customers and keep businesses going. They blame a $300 bonus of federal unemployment benefits that make it more profitable for many people to stay out of work.

“This is a Washington-made challenge,” the governor said. Federal officials “have not really thought through” the issues affecting businesses by giving an extra $300 weekly on top of other unemployment compensation.

McKee said he supports proposed state legislation that would allow people to keep the $300 even if they return to work.

He added, “We also need to provide the opportunity for employers to give their current staff the same option if they want to work that type of a schedule” with shorter hours that qualify the worker for collecting the bonus benefit.

“We’ve got to make sure that the small businesses get staffed properly, otherwise they are not going to be able to take advantage of the robust economy that is coming,” he said.

But the governor was pointed about people returning to work.

“People who are unemployed need to look for work, because it’s out there,” he said.

 

Vaccination Efforts

He said the state’s vaccination rate is making it safe to return to work and for tourists to return to South County and elsewhere in the state.

“I feel very confident that we’re heading in a direction where we’re going to open up safely,” McKee said. “That is a really important thing for Rhode Islanders to know for consumer confidence, that it’s going to be safe and that we will reopen our businesses and a lot of the cultural events.”

That idea figured prominently into his timing for a nearly unrestricted state re-opening on Memorial Day weekend, which also draws tourists, people with second homes in Rhode Island and out-of-state owners of boats docked in South County.

“As we get even more vaccinated — and we’re on pace to be well-protected by Memorial Day — that’s why we picked that date,” he said. “We want to make sure that the Memorial Day weekend was very active for our business community and for our social activities.”

He noted that more than 60% of the state’s eligible adult population is vaccinated with one of two required shots. He expects to reach 70% shortly and thinks the number will grow even larger.

McKee said he pins his optimistic view on research showing that 95% of first-shot recipients also get the second.

He said he is aiming for 90% of the total eligible people in the state to be vaccinated by summer. He nodded, though, to the question of whether that’s too optimistic.

He called it a “lofty goal,” but said he believed it was possible — especially by making vaccines easy to get.

With that in mind, McKee said, he has created plans and is continuing to draft strategies to recruit businesses, schools, social organizations, community groups and any other networks of people to deliver blocs of those wanting it.

This week he has visited several sites, including a stop at Electric Boat in North Kingstown yesterday morning.

As more people get it, individuals hesitating may push aside their concerns, according to public health research. The governor said the state is getting more doses than initially allocated because of a ramped-up effort, and can accommodate the stronger push.

“We’re going to vaccinate the Ocean State and we’re on the road to do that,” he said. That effort takes him back to feeling good about a near-total reopening of the state starting Memorial Day weekend.

“The most important thing that people need to know is that it’s going to be safe,” he said.

 

Changes Coming May 28

The following are the changes coming May 28 to eliminate and significantly modify coronavirus restrictions imposed last year.

Mask-wearing — Required indoors and only if less than a three-foot separation among people.

Social gatherings — No limit on capacity.

Indoor dining — Return to 100% capacity and only three-foot spacing among people and tables.

Bar areas of restaurants — Indoor dining service allowed and all Plexiglass or other separations can be removed.

Catered events — 100% capacity allowed with no limit. Now allowed will be indoor standing for bar service and cocktail hours and an unlimited number of people will be allowed on dance floors.

Houses of worship — 100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people standing or sitting.

Gyms, sports clubs and events, and recreational centers — 100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people visiting them. Out-of-state sports teams can now attend in-state tournaments.

 Personal services, such as barbers and beauty salons —100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people standing or sitting for services.

Venues of assembly, including theaters and other entertainment places — 100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people standing or sitting. In addition, any having more than 2,500 people for indoor-only events need state and local approvals.

Funeral homes — 100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people standing or sitting.

Offices and other workplaces — 100% capacity allowed and only three-foot spacing among people standing or sitting.

 

Local View on Return to Normal

Interviews this past week with a variety of local business owners showed optimism tempered by a wait-and-see attitude.

They are waiting to see signals from customers’ behaviors about re-entering public spaces, especially those indoors, as vaccinations increase and restrictions fade away.

“There’s definitely bipolar thinking,” said Levon Kasparian, owner of the 1898 late-Victorian style Admiral Dewey Inn in South Kingstown. “There are people who want to get out right away and there are others waiting for that herd immunity.”

That question of people deciding to hold back activities or being close to others until more vaccinations occur is on the minds of other business owners, too, said Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s all going to depend on people’s willingness to go out in public in the summer,” he said, despite the loosening of any restrictions.

Perry Raso, owner of the in-demand Matunuck Oyster Bar on Succotash Road in South Kingstown, agreed that caution will still be in the wind around this seacoast right off the Atlantic Ocean.

“I don’t think we’ll see the mobs of people we saw before, when people just came and lined up,” he said. “We now have a reservation system and that will be in place this summer.”

Crowded shoulder-to-shoulder bars may not yet be a common sight, he said, adding that he doubted people will jump in again right away.

“A lot of people miss that hanging around the bar, and maybe at some point in the future it will happen again, but not this summer,” he said.

Even despite the expected wariness, signs already show an eager interest in coming to South County this summer, said owners of several bellweather businesses.

Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, said, “Our local economy will experience a burst after May 28, as regulations become less restrictive for social gatherings, events, dining, and more!

“At the NK Chamber of Commerce, that also serves as an official tourism center, we’re experiencing an increase of tourism-related inquiries,” she said.

Among others are real estate rental agents and boat sales representatives.

“I am completely booked up,” exclaimed Robin Leclerc, a Narragansett real estate agent and investor in several rental properties for year-round rentals. “All of June, July and August are taken and I’m getting calls every day,” she added.

At Brewer’s Yacht Sales in Wickford, David McKenney, boat sales broker, quipped, “All us brokers have more people wanting boats than boats to sell them.”

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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