Some business rules eased, but new COVID strains loom


State officials on Feb. 4 announced the easing of a handful of pandemic-related business restrictions – although they cautioned that as new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus loom, the moves may prove temporary.

Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said positive trends seen in Rhode Island’s COVID-19 data have created a “small window” in which restrictions can be eased.

“We understand how challenging this year has been for the business community, and for everyone in Rhode Island … because of the new strains, while we might make some improvements in terms of restrictions, they may have to be temporary because we’re moving in the direction in the future of dealing with the new strains that may be coming,” she said.

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said officials reviewed various industries to identify ways to “release businesses from some of the restrictions” and “incrementally improve conditions and open up for business activity.”

In specific terms, the new guidelines – which took effect Feb. 5 – involve catered events, indoor dining, office settings, gyms and indoor recreation facilities.

The attendance cap for indoor catered events is increasing from 15 to 30 people, while outdoor events will have a 50-person limit with testing requirements.

“For weddings in particular, we’re going to provide additional flexibility,” he said, allowing up to 50 people if a set of safety protocols are met.

A 50-percent capacity limit remains for indoor service at dining establishments, but the new rules will allow up to two households and a maximum of eight people at each table. Pryor said state officials continue to explore ways to “relax restrictions modestly” in terms of bar areas at bars and restaurants, which remain closed at present.

Offices will be permitted to bring up to 33 percent of their employees back to work in-person, although remote learning remains “preferred” when possible, Pryor said.

For gyms and indoor sports and recreation facilities, the new rules relate to capacity and spacing requirements. One person will be allowed for every 125 square feet of space rather than every 150 square feet of space, while the spacing requirement between patrons has been lowered from 14 feet to 6 feet.

Pryor said the state will provide “additional flexibility” for the smallest establishments falling under the gym or recreation designations, such as yoga studios. Some of those businesses, he noted, would not gain significant, if any, relief through the capacity limit change.

“There will be an appeals process, if you will,” he said, allowing those small businesses to seek further relief through the state.

During her remarks, Alexander-Scott said health officials are focused on the new coronavirus strains that have been identified globally. They are known largely by the places in which they were first detected, such as the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

“We have not definitively seen them here yet in Rhode Island,” she said, but there is a “systematic process in place to monitor for them.”

Given that new strains have been identified in neighboring states, she said: “It’s only a matter of time before they are here in Rhode Island.” At one point, she said: “There’s a sense that we may have another month or so before it really begins to pick up.”

While current indications are that the available COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the new strains, Alexander-Scott said further study is needed on that front. In the meantime, she said, the concern of health officials is that the arrival of new strains that transmit from person to person more quickly and easily than what has circulated locally to date poses a risk of sending Rhode Island back up the curve – mounting case counts, more hospitalizations and deaths, and a resulting strain on the health care system.

“We cannot predict how they will affect our state,” she said of the new strains.

Alexander-Scott said additional guidance from health officials about how to best prepare for these new strains is forthcoming. That will include a focus on “high-quality” face masks and improved air ventilation for indoor settings. Additionally, she said, Rhode Islanders are advised to limit the amount of time they spend in any indoor public place – no longer than an hour “as a general timeframe,” she said, unless it is a person’s home or place of employment.

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who is poised to succeed Gov. Gina Raimondo in short order, took part in last week’s briefing. He echoed Pryor and Alexander-Scott on the current situation, saying the state will continue to explore ways to provide “incremental flexibility” in terms of business restrictions – with the caveat that public health will be the primary concern.

“The strains that are out there are real,” he said.

The latest COVID-19 data from the Department of Health indicate the state’s situation has improved significantly since late last year.

Tuesday’s update showed 305 positive cases identified among 11,154 tests, a positivity rate of 2.7 percent. For last week, the state’s positivity rate was also 2.7 percent, down from 3.3 percent the week prior. That marks three consecutive weeks below the 5 percent threshold, which officials have long pointed to as a key indicator governing public health decision-making.

Alexander-Scott noted last week, however, that the state continues to identify hundreds of new cases on any given day.

“It’s important to recognize that there is still a lot of virus circulating in the community,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 242 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized due to the coronavirus – again below 300 for the first time since early November, Alexander-Scott said. On a week-to-week basis, new hospital admissions fell to 231 last week from 305 the week prior.

Despite the improvements, the state’s death toll from COVID-19 continues to mount. Thirteen more deaths were announced Tuesday, bringing the total since the onset of the crisis to 2,248.

Alexander-Scott also said health officials are “seeing virtually no flu” in the state at present, which she said provides evidence that “infection prevention measures” such as mask wearing and social distancing are proving effective in curbing the spread of viruses.


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