NORTH KINGSTOWN – On Monday night, a motion to extend the town’s state of emergency declaration due to the COVID-19 pandemic sparked debate among town council members along party lines. Despite the extension being endorsed by the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce and being necessary to, according to town officials, bolster small, local businesses, Republicans on the council rejected the proposal while Democrats ultimately approved it in a 3-2 vote.
The motion comes after Governor Dan McKee last week announced a number of relaxations on existing pandemic-related restrictions, including lifting the outdoor mask mandate by May 7, along with no limits for social gatherings and businesses and places of worship being allowed to return to full capacities on May 28. Meanwhile, metrics around the pandemic, such as new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations resulting from the virus, continue to fall in Rhode Island as more and more vaccines are administered to people living and working within the state.
North Kingstown’s own state of emergency was set to expire Monday night, and councilors faced a motion to extend that declaration through June 28. Town manager Ralph Mollis told the council he was “asking for an extension” for three reasons. The first was to bring the town into unison with the State of Rhode Island’s own declaration, which was recently approved for another year. The second was to make sure the town could receive funding from the American Rescue Plan.
“I don’t think we need a declaration in place to receive these funds,” said Mollis. “But I don’t want to make a mistake by saying that we don’t and then we did. There’s no real clear answer on that.”
The third, and most important reason, according to the town manager, was to assist businesses that have created or expanded outdoor premises because of the pandemic.
“The good news is that on May 28, they’re going to be at 100 percent capacity, which is great,” said Mollis. “But at the same time, they’ve invested a lot and by us not continuing this declaration, basically, they have to pick everything up and move it out. It’s as simple as that. Without this declaration, they cannot have the expansion of premises via outdoor dining.”
Mollis added the extension of the declaration will give businesses which have invested in outdoor dining an additional 60 days to come to the town and work through the permitting process to craft a permanent solution to expanded, outdoor premises.
“For us to call in tomorrow, and say to pick everything up, I think would be a big mistake and I don’t think we’re being business friendly,” he said. “…Give them another 60 days, revisit this declaration, and tell the businesses what they need to do.”
“I don’t want this state of emergency to last forever either,” said council president Gregory Mancini. “I’d like to see us give a shot to restaurants to secure outdoor seating and permitting properly. I would say let’s extend this through June 28 and then it can probably go away after that unless something dramatic happens.”
North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce Director Kristin Urbach also endorsed the proposal, stating that $138,000 in aid had been recently invested in local restaurants with outdoor dining, including the state’s “Take It Outside” grants dispersed last year.
Republicans on the town council, however, were in staunch opposition to extending the state of emergency, citing the declining numbers around the pandemic.
“I told you the last [extension] I voted for, I said I wasn’t going to do this again,” said councilmember Kerry McKay. “I think the bottom line is that if a restaurant comes to us right now, the door should be wide open and they should understand that they’re going to get full cooperation from the town.”
“But at this point,” he continued, “between the masks, between the damage that COVID has done to our psychology and the continuation of these emergency protocols, it’s time to call an end to this. I do believe that any restaurant now that has opened their outdoor seating should understand that the town would work with them no matter what the situation is right now.”
Councilmember Mary Brimer agreed.
“We have an uptick in suicide, we have an uptick in opioid overdoses, depression, obesity, alcoholism, domestic violence, enough is enough,” she said.
Brimer added that local restaurants had already received “significant aid.”
Democrats on the council found themselves in an odd position, as Republicans typically project the notion that their party is the most business friendly. Here, however, Democrats on the council argued for the extension in the interest of local restaurants, while Republicans opposed it on a “matter of principal,” according to McKay.
“This proposal was just endorsed by the chamber and our legal counsel and town manager say that it is needed,” said Mancini.
“As town leaders making a decision, it is incumbent on us to look to the experts,” said councilmember Kimberly Ann Page. “I look toward the chamber for business issues, I’m going to be looking to our town manager on how we manage things in the town because that’s what we hired him for and I’m going to be looking towards doctor’s recommendations… And if the experts are saying that we should be waiting and be continuing as we have been, I don’t think I have enough knowledge that I would be ready to go against them.”
“This is the mechanism by which we support our small businesses and our local restaurants,” said councilmember Katherine Anderson. “There is no research, no evidence that a state of emergency is what would correlate to challenges to individuals suffering from mental health conditions.”
Ultimately, the town’s state of emergency extension through June 28 was approved in a 3-2 vote along party lines.