EAST GREENWICH—Main Street seems a ghost town. Innumerable restaurants stand shuttered, phones occasionally ringing unanswered, empty chairs stand at empty tables. This is not the beginning of a heady Les Mis tune, but the reality of local businesses in the wake of Governor Gina Raimondo’s ban on dining in restaurants.
A week ago, public gatherings were limited to 100 or less people. On Monday, they were limited to just 25. Now, Raimondo is considering banning gatherings of more than 10 people. All of that means little, however, to the innumerable restauranteurs and service workers whom are facing grim economic prospects since Rhode Island declared food could only be ordered take-out through the end of March.
“This is a critical time in the state's response, and I know this decision is difficult for small business owners across the state,” said Governor Raimondo. “We know that this action will slow the spread of the virus and help save lives. I appreciate the sacrifices everyone is continuing to make, and I want to assure you that we are doing everything we can to protect public health while also protecting businesses and workers throughout Rhode Island.”
In an ideal world, Raimondo’s demand that there will be no on-premise food consumption for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, or other food establishments in Rhode Island, would mean simply an uptick in takeout orders and long queues of delivery drivers. In reality, most restaurants on Main Street don’t even have staff on hand to answer the phone.
The threat of economic disaster for service industry workers such as waitresses, cooks and bartenders is a real one. Unlike the many affluent transplants who move to East Greenwich for the schools and stay for the home value, service workers often rely on cash tips to get them through from one day to the next, and a missed paycheck can mean a choice between rent or food.
In response to the crisis, the Small Business Administration is offering loans at interests as low as 3.75 percent. For many small business owners, however, being forced to take out another loan because of state policy just isn’t good sense.
Town Manager Andrew Nota issued a statement to The Pendulum Wednesday morning outlining that no step are to small for local government when it comes to trying to prevent local businesses from shuttering. The first small step was to temporarily lift the town’s recently enacted plastic bag ban in an effort to help restaurants cope with providing expanded take-out options while saving some costs.
“The Town stands fully committed in support of the Plastic Bag ban and the increased use of reusable carryout bags, although in light of the circumstances we find ourselves and the pressures being placed on local business, in maintaining operations and in supplying our local community with prepared food and other needed products,” Nota wrote, “this relief will support this effort, in support of the health and well-being of our community, until such time that the Emergency Declaration can be lifted in the coming months. At that time, the full force and effect of this Ordinance will again be in place and enforced.”
Whether such measures can halt the economic crisis that Raimondo’s policy’s have brought about, however, remains to be seen. As of Monday, more than 10,000 Rhode Islanders have already applied for unemployment assistance due to COVID-19 in the last week alone. That is roughly the same number as applied for assistance throughout the entire month of January. The fallout from such economic policies could set back the state for years to come, as service workers make up more than 10 percent of the population, and tourism-oriented communities such as East Greenwich disproportionately rely on their labor compared to other sectors.
Should local business require relief of any kind, they are encouraged to contact the town manager’s office at 401-886-8665 for a discussion as to any viable options that may be open to them.