RHODE ISLAND – As rates of infection continue to decline, Rhode Island small businesses are enjoying fewer restrictions. 

This past weekend, venues of assembly like movie theaters, performing art centers and houses of worship were able to take in up to 40 percent of seated capacity, according to Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, and restaurants were able to open up bar seating. 

The decision to further ease restrictions on small businesses was made because of the declining infection rate, as incoming Gov. Dan McKee has pointed out, which is currently hovering a little above 2 percent. 

“Our positivity levels are way down,” Pryor said. “We were in the 3’s last week and we’re in the 2 percent zone this week.”

This drop in infection rates doesn’t mean Rhode Islander’s can get lax about the rules still in place, though, according to Pryor, and mask wearing is still critical. 

“Things can spike very quickly,” according to Pryor, but bar seating guidelines such as a maximum of two households and four people, six feet of spacing at the bar, 90-minute seating and an 11 p.m. closures should mitigate the spread.

“The public health officials of the state were willing to accept that,” he added. “We know it’s been successful in this first weekend, and to the governor’s point, we are looking at what more flexibility we can provide to any number of venues.” 

Improvements to ventilation, or the utilization of testing, will likely be called upon in an attempt to further ease restrictions. 

“I want to make a plea to the customers out there,” McKee said during his virtual small business town hall on Tuesday. “Let’s help these small businesses, let’s follow the protocol to the nth degree.”

Chris Parisi of Trailblazing PVD, a digital marketing agency which has been providing resources and assistance to other local businesses during these challenging times, said his family enjoyed the extended dining hours and seating this weekend. 

“Getting those restrictions lifted so we could extend indoor dining to the bar area opened up more seating, and was able to help small businesses,” Parisi said. “We were able to support local this weekend down in Newport.”

Following guidelines and keeping everyone safe, McKee said, will ensure that small businesses can continue providing services to the community – rather than being forced to close their doors because of shutdowns. 

The first round of easements the week prior included increased capacity at gyms and sports facilities, doubling the amount of guests allowed at catered events and a greater return of office personnel. 

“Our goal continues to be keeping people safe and out of the hospital, but we are also beginning to identify ways that we can provide our local businesses with incremental flexibility without increasing the infection rate, our hospitalization rate, and our mortality rate,” McKee said. 

Department of Business Regulation Director Liz Tanner gave some word of warning to those returning to the office on Tuesday, noting that spikes are being seen in office spaces.

“As much as all the numbers, overall, are really good right now, we’re seeing one area of spiking, and that’s with offices,” Tanner said. “For those of you who have offices or indoor work, we’re seeing a little bit of a spike in that space, and we think it’s from lack of mask usage.”

“You gotta wear your mask,” she stressed. “Maybe you wear two, depending on what you do and where you do it.”

Tanner also made a plea to small business owners to encourage their employees to get tested regularly, in an attempt to stop potential outbreaks in their tracks. 

In terms of funds granted to small businesses to keep their doors open, Rhode Island Small Business Administration District Director Mark S. Hayward said as of Friday, 837 loans totaling $24.8 million, have been dolled out. The loans average $29,500 for each small business, but even more funding is available through PPE grants. 

McKee pointed out that Pryor is also working with the Rhode Island Department of Administration “to potentially come up with a strategy on some level of CARES Act dollars from last year rolling over to grants.”

What exactly that will look like hasn’t been defined yet, but progress is being made, according to Pryor. 

“We’re looking for every last dollar,” Pryor said. “We’re looking to make sure no dollar goes unspent – and as Gov. McKee has encouraged us all along – making sure those go to small businesses first and foremost.”

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