No citations issued under McKee masking, proof-of-vax mandate

NO FINES OR CITATIONS were issued under Rhode Island's mandate requiring proof of vaccination or indoor masking that was first announced by Gov. Daniel J. McKee on Dec. 15. / AP FILE PHOTO/DAVID J. PHILLIP
NO FINES OR CITATIONS were issued under Rhode Island's mandate requiring proof of vaccination or indoor masking that was first announced by Gov. Daniel J. McKee on Dec. 15. / AP FILE PHOTO/DAVID J. PHILLIP

PROVIDENCE – While an executive order signed by Gov. Daniel J. McKee in December empowered a task force to issue $500 fines against violators of a state mask or proof-of-vaccination mandate, no businesses or organizations have been cited or fined.

Even as hundreds of businesses and other venues have been investigated by the state task force, McKee’s office confirmed this week that there have been zero citations or fines resulting from the nearly two-month proof of vaccination and indoor masking policy. Venues with a capacity of less than 250 people must either have guests show proof of vaccination or wear masks, while larger venues are required to make sure everyone is masked while indoors.

Despite the lack of citations or fines, McKee’s administration is now facing pressure from some business organizations to drop the mandate on Feb. 11 ahead of Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day, three days before it was originally set to expire. 

McKee’s office said the state has deliberately avoided heavy-handed tactics in its approach to the mandate, opting instead for an education-first strategy, informing stores, businesses and other venues that failed to comply about the requirements and the goal to reduce the spread of COVID-19, rather than dole out $500 fines to violators. A task force, composed of R.I. Department of Health and Department of Business Regulation officials, has investigated 400 venues for potential violations since mid-December.

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“As it has been since the start of the pandemic, the task force’s initial approach has been centered on outreach and education first, to help businesses understand their obligations as outlined in the governor’s executive orders and RIDOH regulations,” said Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for McKee. “The intent is to bring businesses into compliance with new regulations, starting with the issuance of a warning followed by other measures for subsequent violations. Using that progressive approach, the task force was able to bring inspected businesses into compliance without issuing violations or fines.”

While O’Hare says it’s always been the goal of the Department of Health and the task force to focus first on outreach and education, the lack of citations under McKee is much different than the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Pandemic-related policies under former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo were much more strict, including capacity limits, mandatory mask-wearing, a shutdown of bar spaces and gyms, hours of operation restrictions and physical distancing orders. About 65 businesses were issued compliance orders between June 23, 2020, and April 23, 2021, according to the Department of Business Regulation.

Rick Simone, founder of a business group called the Ocean State Coalition and president of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, said he’s glad that McKee’s administration took a softer approach to enforcement.

“I think that was the right move,” Simone said. “Had someone gotten a fine, my groups would have completely defended the individual and insisted that there would be no fine. … I don’t think there were as many places not following the mandate as some people may think. I think the majority of businesses were cooperating to the best that they could.”

The Ocean State Coalition and the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, which boasts over 1,500 members, are both calling on McKee to end the indoor masking and proof of vaccination mandate on Feb. 11. Citing falling numbers of new COVID-19 statistics in Rhode Island, the two issued a joint statement arguing that a mandate is no longer needed.

“The recent improving metrics of infection rate and hospitalization rate show that Rhode Island is ready for this,” the two business groups said. “While we recognize everyone has the right to wear a mask at any time of their choosing, a mandate is no longer needed. Ending this mandate on the 11th will help lift consumer confidence as we celebrate Valentines and Super Bowl weekend.”

This comes as states around the country, including California and Delaware, are easing indoor mask mandates. New Jersey and Connecticut are rolling back mask requirements for school children. McKee is scheduled to hold a COVID-19 update on Wednesday and he’s expected to provide an update on the masking situation in Rhode Island, with Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and R.I. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green scheduled to attend.

“We thank the governor for listening to the small-business community as he makes his decision along with the Department of Health,” Simone said.

Christopher Parisi, founder of Trailblaze Marketing and leader of the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, said the mandate has been a “burden” to small businesses, forcing them to devote resources and employee time to inspect proof of vaccination. It also drove away some customers who would rather stay home then go through the added trouble of masking and showing vaccine cards, he said.

But Parisi said he’s glad that no citations or fines were issued under McKee’s mandate.

“The majority of the small-business community applauded that type of approach, as opposed to the fine-into-submission approach,” Parisi said. “That type of process is how we create a working relationship with our government, as opposed to a divisive government versus business mentality. … We applaud those businesses who have been working hard on enforcing these policies from the start, and we applaud the government for working with the businesses that didn’t get it right the first time.”

James Mark, the owner and chef behind Providence restaurants north and Big King, which adopted proof of vaccination policies before they were even required by the government, didn’t have any objections to the McKee administration holding back on fines or citations for businesses that failed to adhere to the governor’s Dec. 15 mandate.

“I think that’s the state’s prerogative,” Mark said. “We had the requirement in place six months before the state, and will continue until our staff no longer feels it is necessary. It is a policy that has led to minimal exposure, and no known outbreaks within the restaurants, and so I’m very happy having it in place.

“I appreciate the statewide mask/vax mandate, it took some pressure off individual businesses that chose to do this,” he added. “I know it gave cover to a lot of businesses that wanted to do this but we’re afraid of blowback. But if restaurants don’t want to do this, people are free to patronize or not patronize them. Restaurants are luxuries. No one needs them. I do feel stronger about those requirements on places like supermarkets, public transit and air travel, which are all things that have limited, if any, alternatives.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

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