Business community split on mask mandate as McKee weighs health options

WHILE THE STATE of Rhode Island is weighing possible health decisions to minimize the impact of the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, the business community is split on the idea of a statewide mask mandate. / AP FILE PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS
WHILE THE STATE of Rhode Island is weighing possible health decisions to minimize the impact of the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, the business community is split on the idea of a statewide mask mandate. / AP FILE PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island’s business community is split on the need for a statewide mask mandate, which Gov. Daniel J. McKee has said he’d consider if Rhode Islanders don’t increase safety protections to curb the spread of COVID-19.

At his press briefing on Thursday at the R.I. Department of Administration, McKee continued the push for adherence to safety precautions, including getting vaccinated and getting booster shots, as the state sees a surge in COVID-19 cases. McKee did not commit as to whether or not a new mask mandate would be imposed, but is concerned about the staffing situation local hospitals are currently facing.

“We’re not talking about several hundred employees, we’re talking about several thousand that are not in a hospital setting,” McKee said. “The critical issue I see right now is the capacity of our health care system.” Local hospitals, including Lifespan Corp., support having indoor mask mandates.

McKee said “all issues are currently on the table” to address the renewed spread of the virus.

- Advertisement -

“We need to continue to see where we are as a state, and let’s see how people respond,” he added. The governor said the state has worked its way through the delta variant because of its high vaccination rate, but concerns grow as the weather gets colder and people shift indoors.

The business community, though, has differing opinions regarding a new indoor mask mandate.

Chris Parisi, founder and president of Trailblaze Marketing and leader of the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, said Thursday the businesses he’s heard from recently, such as restaurants and entertainment services, do not support a mask mandate for two reasons.

“One, the actual mandate itself may increase their … loss of customer base,” he said. “And No. 2, it could cause a decrease in consumer confidence. Even the threat of an indoor mask mandate does cause some type of loss in consumer confidence.”

If some small businesses support a mask mandate, the businesses would “impose it themselves,” Parisi said. Parisi noted that some small businesses, such as yoga studios, impose vaccine mandates to help make customers feel safe in that environment.

Sarah Bratko, senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said local restaurants and other hospitality businesses are concerned that a sweeping mask mandate would punish people for “doing the right thing” and a mandate would not achieve the goal of getting residents vaccinated.

Bratko said mask mandates are enforced by staff at local establishments and, given the political nature on how the public views COVID-19-related mandates, staff would again be possibly subjected to customers’ “ire and anger” who don’t want to wear masks.

“We saw this right when we reopened, people took a lot of frustrations out on the staff,” Bratko said. “[Staff] really were the one bearing the brunt of it. … Who wants an 18-year-old hostess [dealing with] an angry person who doesn’t want to put a mask on?.”

On the other side, Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO and President Kristen Adamo said Thursday that event organizers have been “rolling with the punches” since March 2020 and they will follow McKee’s and the R.I. Department of Health’s orders, including a possible mask mandate, if that’s what’s needed for Rhode Island to stem rising health concerns.

In addition to events following the state’s current health guidelines, Adamo said the bureau is working with planners to see if they want additional safety measures at events, such as mask mandates to attend.

Adamo said there has not been a large amount of pushback from meetings and conventions about possible mandates from the state. Currently, the Northeast Retail Lumber Association is holding its 128th annual LBM Expo tradeshow at the R.I. Convention Center and has attracted more than 1,000 people over the two-day event, Adamo said.

“You have people who are aware of the risks of travel, and are doing what they can to protect themselves,” Adamo said. “We are going business as usual, and we’ll follow the letter of the law.”

Adamo also said that the state has very few, if any, large conventions through the winter due to the holidays and concerns over traveling in snow. “If something like this has to happen, then this is the time of the year that would be best for us,” she said.

Dave Chenevert, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, told PBN Thursday that while he feels nobody wants to go back to masks, manufacturers will do what is needed to keep employees safe.

Chenevert added a new state mask mandate would not negatively impact their operations.

“It’s not something we’re nervous about,” he said. “It’s something we’ve already gone through and we’ll be fine.”

He also said he doesn’t want to see more employees out of work for an extended time due to illness, given that the local manufacturing industry has workforce struggles of its own.

“I can fill about 200 manufacturing positions right now if I had bodies,” he said.

Bratko said the hospitality association has regularly communicated with state and health officials about the situation, and will continue to do so. She said the association would prefer the state’s message be focused on getting vaccinated, get tested regularly and staying home if one is ill.

If there is a mask mandate, both Bratko and Parisi said state support to help small businesses, such as ventilation, filters and other public health supports, will go a long way, in addition to receiving funding from the state’s $1.1 billion American Rescue Plan Act than enforcing mandates.

“We don’t think [mandates] will be an effective solution,” Parisi said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

No posts to display