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R.I. business and religious leaders have mixed feelings about McKee’s new COVID-19 rules

While some praised the governor for taking action, others called the mask rules “unenforceable” and worried that business owners and staff will have to become the “mask police”

An employee at a local bookstore in Rhode Island speaks to a customer through glass.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — On Wednesday, Governor Dan McKee revealed a set of policies to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, alleviate pressure on hospital systems, and to keep schools and businesses open.

In the policies, which take effect Dec. 20, McKee implemented another mask mandate, but only for venues that have a capacity of more than 250 people. People in settings with a capacity of less than that will be able to show proof of vaccination to “opt out” of masking.

His mandates sparked mixed reactions from political, business, and industry leaders across the state.

“Seems kind of hard to claim with a straight face that we are living in an ‘emergency’ when your ‘emergency’ mask mandate order doesn’t go into effect for five days but conveniently right after the last pre-Christmas shopping and party weekend. Funny that,” Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, tweeted.

Rhode Island House Republicans issued a statement that said if McKee was serious about solving the state’s ICU bed shortage, he would repeal the health care vaccinate mandate.


“Rather than this Department of Health folly being remedied, the Governor has now imposed additional unenforceable measures that infringe on the people of Rhode Island’s privacy,” the House Republican members said in a statement.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner was the first 2022 gubernatorial candidate to call for an indoor mask mandate, and said in a statement to the Globe Wednesday that McKee is “finally listening to the experts.”

“Over the past several weeks I have also been calling for the Governor to direct federal stimulus funding toward addressing the severe staffing shortage at hospitals and other critical care settings, and I am disappointed today’s announcement did not include a concrete plan for addressing this staffing shortage,” said Magaziner. “The situation has become dangerous and must be met with urgency.”


Helena Foulkes, a former CVS executive who that is also challenging McKee in the governor’s race, said she wished McKee made the masking decision sooner.

“Leadership during a crisis means listening to experts and taking decisive action at the right moment,” said Foulkes.

Don Fox, president of the Burrillville Town Council, told the Globe that he was aware of the governor’s plans to announce new guidelines, but had not reviewed them yet.

“Our Town Council is very concerned with not hurting businesses and livelihoods of people who have struggled through 2020 and who have worked hard to get back on their feet in 2021,” he said.

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, a fellow Democrat and longtime supporter of McKee, said the governor is striking the right balance with the new mask mandate.

“I think the governor is trying to do a delicate balancing act with COVID cases increasing and trying to keep the economic climate going,” said Polisena, who co-chaired McKee’s transition COVID-19 Advisory Group. He said the new mask mandate won’t be an obstacle for Johnston restaurants. “I have known Danny for a long time. He puts a face on every decision he makes, and the faces are their restaurant and business owners. He wants them to stay in business, but be safe.”

Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said the state’s new requirements are “necessary measures to slow the spread of the virus.”

“This situation is dynamic and the City will continue to monitor local cases and trends to determine if additional actions are required in the future,” he said in a statement to the Globe.


Leaders of Rhode Island’s places of worship had mixed reactions to the governor’s announcement.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence encouraged all Rhode Island Catholics to follow state guidelines by wearing a mask when attending Mass and other services. But, he added in a statement, “no individual should be turned away from Mass or singled out if they choose not to wear a mask. Such individuals may have good and substantive reasons for not doing so.”

He also said liturgical ministers aren’t expected to wear masks “while actively participating in the liturgy.”

Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island said his diocese would comply with the new rules. People not willing to comply with the rules will be offered a mask or otherwise encouraged to watch the service from home. Knisely said he believes that universal masking, rather than checking vaccine records in congregations smaller than 250, would be more practical.

“I know there have been letters written by other groups of clergy who are nondenominational or connected with other traditions who have said that this is too far for them,” Knisely said. “It is not too far for us, and part of my reading of Scripture is that our duty is to care for our neighbor.”

A sign promoting social distancing at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. Maddie Meyer/Getty

Business and industry leaders voiced a number of concerns regarding the mandate for fear that business owners and staff will have to become the “mask police.”


“One would think that in the past two years, they could come up with a better plan than having $3.89-an-hour employees in charge of public health again,” said Eileen Harvey, who owns Skeff’s Neighborhood Pub in Cumberland.

The Rhode Island Hospitality Association recently conducted a survey that showed “mixed results” on mask and vaccine mandates in hospitality businesses.

“The overriding concern is for the staff who will now be on the front lines of enforcement,” said Dale Venturini, the association’s CEO and president. “We represent an industry that is in the business of accommodating all people. And, despite being one of the most heavily regulated throughout the pandemic, our industry continues to work hard to fulfill consumer demand, provide the best guest experience possible, and follow best practices to keep patrons and staff safe; all while working long hours due to staff shortages.”

Luke Renchan, who owns an entertainment company that brings DJs, photo booths and lighting to events including weddings, said he and others in the industry are “100 percent against” the new rules.

“With that being said, we’re still able to do what we need to do for our events,” said Renchan, who’s based in Tiverton. “Events can still happen.”

Rick Simone, the president of the Federal Hill Commerce Association and head of the Ocean State Coalition, said he did not support “a mask mandate of any kind,” but that he understands the current strain on hospitals.


“Governor McKee has acted in good faith and kept us and our colleagues fully involved in the process of today’s decision,” he told the Globe.

Simone called on the state health department to “ensure additional measures to mitigate the current health needs are met.” Specifically, Simone said Rhode Island needs “a shorter turnaround time on PCR tests, internal free testing materials to small businesses, increased access to booster shots, and statewide test-to-stay options in our schools.”

Bally’s, which owns Twin River Casino in Lincoln and Tiverton Casino, said they “support” the governor’s decision, and were made aware of it ahead of time, according to Patti Doyle, a spokeswoman for the company.

Chris Parisi, who owns Trailblaze Marketing and leads the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, said small business owners have “fought tirelessly the past two years and now is not a time to give up. We will get through this short-term bump in the road and are confident we’ll have a strong 2022 together.”

Edward Fitzpatrick of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.