NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (AP) — The easing of rules on outdoor dining that proved to be a critical lifeline for many Rhode Island restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic were extended Monday during a ceremonial bill signing by Gov. Daniel McKee.
The law signed outside Meldgie's Diner in Narragansett puts a moratorium until April 1 on enforcement of municipal ordinances or zoning requirements that would penalize restaurant and bar owners for modifying their premises to allow for outdoor dining.
“When something works and makes sense, you continue it," the Democratic governor said at the ceremony attended by the legislative sponsors of the bill as well as several bar and restaurant owners. “That is what this legislation is all about: allowing these outdoor seating arrangements to continue so we can support small, locally-owned restaurants that have faced numerous challenges since the outset of the pandemic."
Mark Eldridge, co-owner of three Meldgie's Diner locations, said the challenges of COVID-19 have been “overwhelming," but his restaurants have stayed afloat thanks to local, state and federal aid programs.
Outdoor dining has "revitalized" the Narragansett diner and they are now seeing their best sales figures in history, he said.
“This outdoor dining means everything right now, because with COVID coming back, it's even more important than ever," he said.
Without the legislation, many restaurants would run afoul of local zoning laws once the state's emergency declaration is lifted, said state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, chair of the House Small Business Committee.
“This bill will give our restaurants and other hospitality businesses the chance to earn back the significant losses they have all incurred over the past year," she said.
The number of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 population has moved into the "substanial" transmission level, the state Department of Health reported on Monday.
The department reported a transmission rate of more than 57 news cases per 100,000 population over the past seven days, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
The rate has been climbing steadily for the past month, but is still far short of the 886 new cases per 100,000 population in December.
The department also reported about 250 new confirmed cases, and no virus-related deaths over the past three days. The agency does not update on weekends.
The number of people fully vaccinated in the state is now more than 654,000.