WESTERLY — Town Manager J. Mark Rooney on Tuesday issued an executive order intended to help restaurant owners by loosening local regulations to make it easier for them to institute outdoor dining as Gov. Gina Raimondo's phased reopening of the state unfolds.
Under Raimondo's plan, restaurants can open for outdoor dining starting Monday but must follow a set of new rules and regulations designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. On Monday, Rooney explained to the Town Council that his order would relax local zoning and licensing regulations but would not undermine the governor's rules.
"This loosens the town restrictions, but it can't be more liberal than the governor's," Rooney said.
Under the new state regulations, restaurants will be required to take reservations, limit tables to no more than five customers, and use disposable, digital or chalkboard menus, or menus that can be sanitized.
To facilitate contact tracing, restaurant patrons will be required to share their names and addresses. Patrons will also be required to wear masks except when eating or drinking or when speaking with a waiter. Tables and chairs must be sanitized after each party leaves.
Rooney's order allows the use of parking lots, public parks and rights of way with permission of town authorities for outdoor dining. Rooney said he had areas of Watch Hill in mind when he developed the public parks and right-of-way provision.
While consideration was given to closing High Street in the downtown area on certain days of the week, Rooney said the idea was dropped due to liability concerns. Police Chief Shawn Lacey said town officials reviewed local restaurants and found that many have areas that could be used for outdoor dining.
Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Konicki clarified that the idea of closing High Street for events involving the service of alcohol did not come from the chamber or focus groups it conducted with restaurant owners.
Consideration of limiting High Street to one-way traffic to allow for using part of the roadway for dining was dropped.
"We weren't comfortable enough and there didn't seem to be enough support," Konicki told the Town Council.
Restaurants have been limited to delivery and take-out for several weeks under Raimondo's executive orders. At least one local restaurant owner said his establishment will remain limited to take-out until the state lifts additional restrictions.
"This is not economically or operationally practical for us ... We hope you understand we are trying to balance safety for customers and staff with economic and operational realities," said the owners of Two Little Fish on Atlantic Avenue in a Facebook comment that was posted Monday night after Raimondo's new regulations were released.
The Town Council also discussed other aspects of the pandemic response. Town Councilor Sharon Ahern asked Rooney to continue pushing for relaxing restrictions on religious services. Churches and other places of worship "have been left out" of reopening discussions, "yet that is a fundamental part of a lot of people's mental health," Ahern said.
Gina Fuller, a town resident, asked town officials to push for fewer restrictions, saying local restaurant owners are likely to struggle if they are limited to outdoor dining. Council members, she said, should consider contacting the governor and the town's state legislative delegates.
"It just seems like you are leaving it up to them and forgetting that you are our representatives, and the more voices in unison the stronger. Maybe you should ... consider a letter requesting that some of these additional restrictions be lifted," Fuller said.
This article was revised at 10:44 a.m. on May 13, 2020 to correct the origin of a proposal to close High Street as a means to help local restaurants.