State to ease bar restrictions, house-of-worship capacity limits

THE R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH is easing restrictions on business effective Friday due to a decline int he state's positivity rate. / COURTESY R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

PROVIDENCE A decline in the COVID-19 positivity rate has led the R.I. Department of Health to ease restrictions on restaurants and houses of worship. The revised restrictions will go into effect on Friday.

The changes included the opening of bar areas to parties of up to four people from two households with a 90-minute limit, and an 11 p.m. curfew, as well as the increase of the capacity limit at venues of worship from 25% to 40%, with a cap of 125 people. Indoor dining will remain at 50% capacity, two households per table and up to an eight-person limit, and the rest of the state’s restrictions will remain the same.

In bar areas, groups of guests will either be required to be spaced 6 feet apart, or 3 feet apart with spacing barriers.

Stefan Pryor, R.I. secretary of commerce, said that the purpose was to give more flexibility to the state’s business and houses of worship. “Improving health conditions allows the state to do this,” he said.

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The restrictions were prompted by the science, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the RIDOH, during her COVID-19 briefing at Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Thursday. Alexander-Scott called the easing of restrictions “tough decisions,” as the state tries to “balance public health and economic health.”

She noted that the state has a percent positivity rate of 2.1%. The weekly positive rate declined to 2.7% this week compared to 3.3% last week.

“The data has to be balanced with what we are proposing,” she said, noting that the state is proceeding with “caution,” and this could be a temporary path forward. “We’re doing this carefully … supporting the businesses.”

The news was welcomed by the state’s businesses groups representing industries that have been hit hard by the tightening of the restrictions since the pandemic began, as well as the recession.

Dale J. Venturini, CEO and president of the R.I. Hospitality Association, said, “The R.I. Hospitality Association is encouraged by the decision to lift some restrictions so that businesses can serve limited, socially-distant customers at the bar. RIHA has been advocating on behalf of our industry by engaging in constant, ongoing discussions with the governor’s office, Lt. Gov. McKee, the R.I. Department of Health and R.I. Commerce to safely reinstate this vital aspect of hospitality operations, and while the limitations are not perfect, these changes are a critical first step in moving forward.”

The R.I. Small Business Coalition also issued a statement noting its approval of the softening of restrictions.

“The R.I. Small Business Coalition has been working tirelessly with R.I. Commerce the past few weeks to advocate for our bar operators to lift the restrictions in time for this weekend. After many discussions between Commerce, the incoming Gov. McKee, and Department of Health, these loosened restrictions will give small businesses a boost heading into Valentine’s Day weekend.”

The Ocean State Coalition and the Federal Hill Commerce Association also weighed in through a joint statement as well, heralding the move:

“Today we are glad to see the lifting of restrictions for the use of our bars. As we have repeatedly said all restaurants occupancies include the use of bar seats. So the return of bar seating dining helps our restaurants get closer to using the current 50% occupancy limit. Thus, giving them a fighting chance to continue to be open for business.”

“We firmly believe restaurants throughout the state have already proven they can manage use of the bars providing a safe and enjoyable environment for our guests,” they said. “The stipulations announced today for the use of the bars is a good starting point but we can do more.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. You may reach him at Shuman@PBN.com.

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