Pryor: 100 percent capacity in the ‘foreseeable future’

PROVIDENCE — As metrics around the COVID-19 pandemic drop in Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee recently relaxed some restrictions for restaurants and bars and more relief is expected soon if numbers hold.

“Today, I’m announcing additional relief to the local restaurants in our effort to do this incremental advancement of reducing the restrictions based on, and I’m going to mention again, this is all based on a really high level of discipline that we’re following the protocols that are currently in place,” said McKee.  “This is going to allow us to open up the economy in addition to making sure that we’re really rolling out the vaccine.”

Restaurants can now space tables six feet apart instead of eight feet, and patrons can remain in a bar area until midnight, up from 11 p.m., as long as food is being ordered or consumed. Indoor dining is still regulated at 66 percent of an establishment’s capacity. Further, in an effort to bolster local garden and farming businesses, McKee announced there would now be no limit on outdoor retail capacity.

“We know that restaurants have been still suffering under the restrictions that exist,” said Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, who joined McKee at the state’s weekly COVID-19 press briefing late last week. “We know that numerous restaurants really need to offer seating for dinners at bars because their customers prefer to sit there or they need the extra space. We’re sympathetic to that. We know the 11 p.m. closure is a hardship to certain establishments, especially smaller ones, so we’re offering relief.”

More easing of current restrictions is expected to be announced by McKee Friday, with this round larger in scope. The RI governor said that the gradual re-opening would continue if numbers around the pandemic and vaccination rates hold.

Pending announcements expected Friday include increasing indoor dining capacity to 75 percent, allowing catered events to permit 100 people inside and 200 outside, houses of worship capacity increasing from 40 percent to 75 percent, venues of assembly capacity would increase from 40 percent to 50 percent (with limits of 250 people indoors and 500 outdoors) and offices could rise from 33 percent capacity to 50 percent, though remote working is still preferred. Additionally, gyms and retail stores could increase from one person every 100 square feet to 50 square feet (one person per every 100 square feet for big box stores). Finally, social gatherings are expected to rise from current regulation of two households indoors and three households outdoors to 15 people indoors and 50 outdoors.

“You can see that we are moving systematically and with as much speed as we think is responsible to higher levels of capacity in business and other institutional settings,” said Pryor. “We know that numerous businesses wish to get to 100 percent [capacity] and we know that some states are moving in the direction of 100 percent. We want to express now that we too are moving in that direction, we are moving in this step-by-step manner while monitoring our public health conditions which, at the moment, are strong and stable.”

Pryor added that 100 percent capacity at restaurants was in the “foreseeable future.”

The relaxation comes as metrics around the pandemic, such as case positivity rate, hospitalizations and new cases, continue to drop across the state, as the number of vaccine doses administered increases. However, this week, after McKee’s announcement Friday, data from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) showed that hospital admissions were up slightly compared to the previous week (from 118 to 135) and the state averaged 225 new cases per 100,000 population per day, up slightly from last week’s 221. Rhode Island has maintained a case positivity rate of about two percent since February.

According to RIDOH, as of Tuesday, 274,788 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, with 386,264 total doses administered and 118,021 people are fully vaccinated.

“Everyone across the board in Rhode Island is very hopeful about how amazing our summer can look,” said RIDOH Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. “We are positioned to get there. We need to continue to take the steps together so that we can reach it effectively. We really need to remain focused, especially now.”

McKee, state and health officials throughout the announcement made it clear that restrictions would continue to be loosened only if the data supported such action, and all urged Rhode Islanders to continue to follow health and safety regulations, such as mask wearing, social distancing, frequent hand washing and general vigilance.

“We want to make sure that we move vigorously and responsibly” said Pryor.

When asked why lift restrictions now, when the pandemic is seemingly on the verge of being defeated and more and more vaccine doses are being administered, McKee said he thought the action was appropriate.

“I don’t think we’re pushing the limits,” he said. “I’ve talked about incremental flexibility. I think we would be pushing the limits if we went from 0 to 60 in one second. We’re not doing that.”

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