How RI business owners reacted to McKee’s new ‘mask or vax’ policy

Business News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Starting next week, most Rhode Island businesses will require customers to either wear a face mask or provide proof of vaccination.

Gov. Dan McKee announced the new requirements during a briefing on Wednesday, saying the goal is to curb the recent increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations without placing too big a burden on small businesses.

He broke down the requirements into three categories:

  • For larger indoor venues (capacity of 250 or more), masks will be required for all attendees, regardless of vaccination status.
  • For smaller indoor venues (capacity of under 250) — which includes restaurants, retailers and venues of assembly — each individual establishment can require either mandatory masks for all; mandatory proof of vaccination for all; or masks only for individuals who fail to show proof of vaccination.
  • For offices, manufacturers and other indoor businesses, the rule will be similar to the one for smaller indoor venues. Individual establishments can require proof of vaccination from all patrons and employees; implement a universal mask mandate; or require masks only for individuals who fail to show proof of vaccination.

“We encourage people to frequent our local businesses but be safe about it,” McKee said.

Local business owners said that while the new rules aren’t ideal, they’re thankful the governor kept them in mind when making his decision.

In a statement, the R.I. Small Business Coalition said they believe McKee is taking a measured approach to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“We do not support any mask policy that puts additional burdens on our small businesses,” the statement read. “However, we are pleased to see businesses under 250 will not be forced with a full mask mandate.”

In addition to the new requirements, the coalition called on the R.I. Department of Health to provide testing kits to small businesses and improve the availability of vaccines and testing, among other health measures.

“To our small business community, you have fought tirelessly the past two years and now is not a time to give up,” the statement continued. “We will get through this short-term bump in the road and are confident we’ll have a strong 2022 together.”

Rick Simone, the executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, said McKee has “acted in good faith” by keeping all stakeholders involved in the process of making his decision.

“We believe the option of allowing small businesses with capacities of 250 or less the ability to not have a full mandate but allow proof of vaccination is a measured approach,” Simone said, adding that they will continue to work with the state to ensure the burden on small businesses is “at an absolute minimum.”

McKee’s decision isn’t sitting well with all business owners, however.

Hugo Adames, owner of The Talent Factory, tells 12 News he’s worried these requirements will deter people from going out.

“People are not going to spend the money that Rhode Island’s economy needs,” he explained. “Businesses in Rhode Island have faced so many challenges … to add another element because of the coronavirus and change the way we do business day-to-day is just going to be much more difficult.”

Michael Mota, owner of Skyline at Waterplace in Providence, said he felt blindsided by McKee’s decision.

“At this point, I’m pretty much numb,” Mota said. “It’s just a black cloud over the business community.”

Mota said he’s already had someone cancel their upcoming event since McKee announced the new requirements, and he’s worried about his venue’s most-anticipated event of the year: New Year’s Eve.

“We’re the biggest event in the state [for New Year’s Eve] … I’ve scaled back already and news like this, it just kind of depresses you a bit because here we are again,” he said.

Mota said he expects those who are planning to host events at his venue to try and keep their guest lists under 250 to avoid the need to enforce a mask mandate.

“The events are getting smaller and smaller,” Mota explained. “It’s just less revenue that comes in, less employees we can bring in.”

Right now, it’s unclear whether businesses will face any penalties for not abiding by the new policies.

“I’m not a big fan of penalties, but I am also a big fan of following the procedures and the protocols that we put in place,” McKee said when asked about potential punishments. “We will make a balance on that.”

Adames said McKee’s lack of commitment when it comes to enforcing the new requirements puts business owners in a difficult position.

“I’m not sure if the governor is planning on implementing any kind of fines or action for people that are not following the rule, and I hate to say that because it brings us back to a time that we didn’t enjoy as small businesses,” he said. “But if someone doesn’t follow the rule and they are reprimanded for it, I think it’s counterproductive and it’s going to hurt in the long run.”

McKee said the state will publish a detailed question-and-answer document about implementation of the new rules by the end of the day on Thursday, including how they will be enforced. The new requirements will be “reevaluated” within 30 days after McKee signs the new executive order.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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