PROVIDENCE - Governor Gina Raimondo will allow restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining only next Monday, the latest action the state is taking to ease the social distancing restrictions that left thousands of service industry employees out of work as the coronavirus struck Rhode Island over the past two months.
The restaurants will be required to take reservations ahead of time, limit tables to up to five customers, and use disposable, digital, or chalkboard menus in order to avoid having customers touch commonly used items in the establishments.
Raimondo said the state would issue more guidance to business owners by Monday evening, but she urged both customers and employees to be careful as restaurants reopen. She said she expects outbreaks of the highly contagious virus to occur, but said she’s confident the state is prepared to address them.
“I only want to reopen this economy once,” Raimondo said during her daily media briefing Monday afternoon. “I don’t want this to be fits and starts.”
The decision to allow restaurants to partially reopen is sure to be welcome news to an industry that has been devastated by the coronavirus.
The announcement came as more than 100 people in cars and on foot - including several restaurant owners - rallied outside the State House to encourage Raimondo to move faster to reopen the economy.
At 12:40 p.m., there were 37 cars whose drivers appeared to be taking part in the rally, many repeatedly honking their horns in unity. There were about 75 people gathered in front of the State House around the same time, some carrying signs that mocked Raimondo’s signature catchphrase: “Knock it off.”
Raimondo briefly mentioned the protesters during her press conference inside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, acknowledging that she understands that people are frustrated that the virus has sent the nation’s economy spiraling.
The state Department of Health said Monday that eight more residents have died from the virus, bringing the total to 430 since the middle of March. There were 176 new confirmed cases, for a total of 11,450 infections across the state.
Of the people who died, three were in their 60s, two were in their 70s, two were in their 80s, and one was in their 90s, according to Health Department director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
“We are moving in the right direction, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Alexander-Scott said.
Raimondo said the relative decline in new cases - the positivity rate for Sunday was down to 8 percent - is “good news," but the virus continues to hit New England hard. Massachusetts was expected to reach 5,000 deaths on Monday, and Connecticut is approaching 3,000 deaths.
The governor said she was pleased with the first phase of reopening the economy over the weekend, which included lifting a stay-at-home order and allowing non-essential retail stores to operate under capacity restrictions. She said spot checks of businesses revealed 95 percent of employees were wearing state-mandated masks, and 75 percent of customers were wearing them.
“We have to do better, 75 percent is not where we want to be," Raimondo said. She also the state is seeing “mediocre compliance” with customers wearing masks when they visit drive-up businesses such as Dunkin'.
Restaurants have been open for takeout and delivery services throughout the pandemic, but Raimondo acknowledged that many have struggled to remain afloat. She said she’s hopeful that the state will be able to provide more financial support for restaurants that will have to take on additional expenses - like cleaning products - when they reopen for outdoor dining.
Other restrictions for restaurants that will provide dine-in services include a requirement that employees screen customers for symptoms and keep tables at least eight feet apart.
In addition to restaurants, Raimondo said she expects to allow churches to open sometime in May, although she did not offer a specific date.
Raimondo has faced criticism from some residents in this very Catholic state for continuing to keep faith institutions closed, and she has acknowledged that she, too, misses attending Mass on Sundays. Talk-radio host John DePetro, one of the protest’s organizers, drew cheers when he called on the governor to let churches open.
“We need to end this and loosen the restrictions,” DePetro shouted.
As she moves forward with reopening the economy, Raimondo said she no longer intends to issue specific restrictions for elderly residents, even though she is certain that the virus is “toughest on the oldest among us.”
Raimondo said the state will continue to prohibit visitors to nursing homes and encourage retailers to make special accommodations for seniors, but separate regulations are “not likely.”
Dan McGowan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.