By Nicole Wagner
The “Take It Outside” Sundays in East Greenwich, where Main Street was closed down from 3 to 9 p.m. to extend outdoor seating for restaurants, ended in October but the town isn’t done trying to assist local businesses struggling under COVID-19 restrictions.
The town has received two state grants – for a total of $100,000 – to help stimulate business and provide relief for local restaurants. This money comes from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, part of the $1.25 billion received by the state last spring.
Town Manager Andrew Nota said the money will be used to provide road barricades, personal protective equipment, outdoor heaters, outdoor carpeting, lighting, tables and law enforcement staffing to facilitate this increased outdoor seating during the colder months. The success of the “Take It Outside” Sundays convinced Nota and the EG Chamber of Commerce that more help would pay off.
“[Restaurants] were not finding that consumers were comfortable yet going indoors,” Nota said, noting concerns about COVID-19. “Plus, the businesses and the public were still learning how to protect themselves.”
The increased business on Main Street has benefitted the entire town’s economy by putting a spotlight on East Greenwich, said Steve Lombardi, EG Chamber director.
“The weather was very favorable and our restaurants on Main Street were very busy and the community, I think, embraced it, they really enjoyed it,” Lombardi said.
Rasa restaurant manager Santosh Shanbhag said the Main Street eatery really benefited from the increased outdoor seating after getting hit hard by the pandemic early on.
“As soon as the program was announced, we had a huge turnaround on Sundays,” Shanbhag said. “And it was a nice kind of feeling and vibe because the entire street was closed, people were walking on the street, it allowed us to add extra tables outdoors.”
However, as the weather got colder, the impact narrowed.
Shanbagh said that Rasa has purchased its own outdoor heaters to help as the weather gets colder but the restaurant is looking forward to receiving additional heaters from the town once they are available for disbursement.
Perhaps not surprisingly, East Greenwich found itself in a race to locate outdoor heaters, as individuals and businesses nationwide are trying to buy them. According to Nota, the town was able to locate 40 heaters in California. They should be arriving soon. The equipment will be loaned out to local businesses; ownership will remain with the town.
Further south on Main Street, Dante’s Kitchen was not included in the “Take It Outside” initiative because it both closes before 3 p.m. and it sits outside the perimeters of the street closure, according to owner Lisa Altieri. However, Altieri said that if the town could give her the two parking spots outside of her business to expand outdoor seating, that would be a big help.
“If the town would allow me to do that for November going into December it would help me tremendously because I only have very limited seating at the counter, I think I only have four seats,” Altieri said.
The other issue Altieri has seen has been that customers are not able to wait inside for their table and must be socially distanced when waiting outside as well. With this scattering of customers, Altieri has had to hire another person to call customers when their table is ready.
“So the amount of staffing that I’m using is crazy because everyone has to be checked in with the COVID as well,” said Altieri.
Because of these increased wait times, Altieri said her business has lost some customers although most have been understanding and loyal. The 90-minute dining time restriction imposed by the governor has actually helped Altieri by allowing her to turn tables more frequently. She said customers have been understanding.
“They get it; again, because they don’t want to see any businesses shut down,” Altieri said. “I feel like East Greenwich people just want to be able to go out and not have to travel outside of East Greenwich. They want to be able to go to their favorite restaurants that they’ve always gone to and they are dealing with the restrictions.”
Keeping these businesses alive during the pandemic is extremely important to the town and the chamber, Lombardi said.
“Small business is so important and we know that it’s been impacted greatly by COVID-19 so we’re working together to try to help our businesses and we’re going to do everything we can to do so.”
Nicole Wagner is a journalism student at the University of Rhode Island