WOONSOCKET — Apparently caving to criticism that they were moving too slowly to help the pandemic-battered restaurant industry, state officials abruptly called for a sooner-than-planned end to the dine-in curfew Friday.

After they announced during last week’s COVID-19 briefing that the curfew would not be lifted until Sunday, Jan. 31, Rhode Island Commerce Corporation issued a statement early Friday morning saying that Gov. Gina Raimondo was to sign an executive order later in the day declaring the immediate termination of the early closure mandate.

“Small businesses, especially our restaurants, have been hit so hard during this pandemic,” said Commerce spokesman Matt Sheaff. “Because our COVID-19 data is showing positive signs across the board, we are able to gradually relax some of the business restrictions in place. Today Gov. Raimondo will sign an executive order immediately removing the early closure requirements for businesses.”

The course correction came after Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor faced an exceptionally tough grilling from members of the media about the original timing for lifting the curfew at the briefing a day earlier.

The curfew had been in effect since Nov. 30 and required restaurants to close at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was originally billed as a three-week affair when Raimondo first imposed the curfew as part of a two-week “pause” on economic activity in anticipation of a post-Thanksgiving spike in COVID-19 infection rates.

The pause was extended to three weeks for most social activity, but the curfew lived on for restaurants and a number of other commercial endeavors, including gyms, fitness centers and entertainment venues.

One reporter reminded Pryor that restaurateurs had already lost thousands as a result of a curfew that was supposed to last two weeks ended up in place for two months.

For many restaurants, late nights on weekends is the most profitable window of the week, but a Sunday end to the curfew would have meant enduring another week without it.

“It’s a fair point,” Pryor allowed at the briefing. “Quite frankly the dialog inside our team has been about the fact that people still need to exercise caution, they still need to observe all the prevailing rules and the pandemic isn’t over.”

Local restaurants learned of the new timing from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association early Friday morning, restaurateurs said.

It’s unclear exactly what changed officials’ minds – Sheaff did not reply to an email with followup questions – but some restaurant owners think lifting the curfew doesn’t go far enough to help restaurants survive the pandemic.

“I’m glad they’re lifting it, it’s going to help, especially with Valentine’s Day coming up,” said Dave Lahousse, owner of Kay’s Restaurant on Cass Avenue. “But I still think the bars need to be open.”

Many restaurants, including Kay’s, made substantial investments in safety improvements for their bar areas to keep them available for patrons. They include plexiglass partitions between small groups of seats and between the seating and service area. Yet bars, an important revenue-generator for many restaurants, remain completely off-limits.

The restrictions are in sharp contrast to those in effect in neighboring Massachusetts, where patrons can still sit at a bar as long as they’re also dining. In a border community like Woonsocket, Lahousse says, it’s quite possible that at least some of the hometown crowd is migrating across the state line with its bar dollars.

“If you can go sit at a bar in Bellingham, Blackstone or Wrentham, I think it hurts,” said Lahousse.

Moreover, Lahousse is skeptical that the prevailing data on COVID-19 trends supports keeping the bars closed. The most recent RIDOH data, for example, shows that the seven-day average infection rate dropped to 4.3 percent, the first time it’s been under 5 percent in more than a month, and the number of cases per 100,000 people dipped to about 440, which is as low as it’s been since mid-November.

To Lahousse, those numbers suggest sitting at a bar is as safe as sitting at a table – if not safer, given the safety improvements owners have made early on in the pandemic as a condition of remaining open. Responsible restaurateurs are also capable of self-policing for unnecessary mingling in bar areas, which is what Kay’s had been doing before bar service was completely banned.

Despite the abolition of the dine-in curfew, restaurants are still facing other restrictions that cut into their bottom lines – including sharp rollbacks on indoor dining capacity.

In the Blackstone Valley and beyond, it’s still unclear how the restrictions will play out in an industry known for squeaking by on razor-thin profit margins driven primarily by high table-turnover volume.

But ending the bar ban would be a giant leap forward for restaurants like Kay’s and others still struggling to get by without one of their most important revenue streams, says Lahousse.

“I’ve been very nice about the whole thing, but enough is enough at this point,” he said. “We’re a restaurant that happens to have a bar; we’re not a bar that sells pickles and chips and stuff like that. It’s not right for the single person that comes in or the couple that likes to come in and sit at the bar.”

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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