Representatives of the many businesses in Newport County and the region have begun work on plans to reopen the economy once Gov. Gina Raimondo and other governors begin easing the coronavirus restrictions to let the rollout begin.
“Right now we are working on collecting data,” said Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce that represents just under 1,050 members.
“We did a survey about two weeks ago on how many businesses were forced to close their doors, how many could keep operating, how many are employed, how many are unemployed, and other questions about the state of their businesses,” she said. “The survey asks what kind of resources and assistance they would need temporarily and what would be needed more permanently going forward.”
Of the chamber members, 120 took the survey.
“It’s a fairly decent sample and we’ll have a follow-up survey in the next couple of weeks,” Donovan-Boyle said.
“I’m thrilled about the plans by the governors of the six states (Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) to work regionally,” she said. Soon after those governors’ joint announcement, the Massachusetts governor said he would work with the other Northeast states.
“People come from out-of-state to work in the Rhode Island marinas and Rhode Islanders go out-of-state to work in other marinas, “Mackie said.
“Because we all share bits of our economy, we’re excited by a regional rollout plan,” she said. “We are working to be ready. We are doing everything to keep our workforce safe, so we can be out on the water once we’re able to.”
RIMTA is working with other marine trades representatives in several other states to create back-to-work guidelines as part of what is called the “Returning Safely to Work Project,” Mackie said.
“We want to make sure we are ready to go,” she said. “Our industry is different. Boating is natural social distancing at a time when so many other recreational activities are closed down.”
Dale Venturini, executive director of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said the restoration efforts in the hospitality industry will be varied, but it is still to early to be more specific.
“We are surveying and talking to our members regarding their ideas for reopening the economy,” she said.
“Under our business model, one size does not fit all,” she said. “We represent all types of restaurants, from coffee shops to fine dining. We are looking for the best answers for all.”
“The next step is for the hotel end,” she said. “We are looking at all aspects of our industry to determine what the best guidelines would be. There are going to be important health concerns that have to be dealt with.”
Evan Smith is president and CEO of Discover Newport that represents the tourism interests of the nine communities of Newport and Bristol counties. Tourism is closely linked to the travel industry and the tourism economy has different other aspects as well.
“Three big silos are conventions, festivals, and weddings,” Smith said.
Convention planners, festival organizers and wedding planners all have to know what size gathering they can have before they can get back into business, he said.
“These people are frozen at this time because they don’t know what’s coming,” he said. “Right now they are just postponing events until they have the information they need to operate.”
“We are anxiously awaiting what the medical community and government officials tell us what the new rules for social distancing and gatherings will be – when they take effect and how long they will last,” Smith said.
He noted what Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her daily press conference on Wednesday.
“There will still be restrictions all summer long, all fall frankly, until we have an effective treatment and until we have a vaccine,” the governor said. “The treatment will come sooner, I think, than a vaccine, but a vaccine is well more than a year away. There are still going to be restrictions and those restrictions particularly will be around crowds. There will be strict restrictions continuing around the size of crowds and our ability to congregate.”
That is ominous for all convention, festival and wedding planners, Smith noted.
“The travel industry in the past has always been the catalyst for economic recovery,” Smith said. “The industry paves the way for moving out of recessionary economic times. What is different this time will be the new limits and restrictions placed on travel.”
“After 9-11, we had additional screening at airports,” he said. “It changed the travel industry, but screening has become part of travel.”
“In the current landscape, how can you travel internationally if you have to quarantine after you arrive?” he asked. “Anyone arriving in Rhode Island has to quarantine for 14 days.”
“We don’t yet know what the future restrictions on the travel industry will be,” he said.
“We want to set the table for when business people will be able to realistically reopen, given the many different factors that come into play,” Donovan-Boyle said.
“According to national data, 10% to 25% of small businesses may not be able to reopen,” she said. “We want that figure to be as low as possible for this area.”
She said she is thinking of all the “Main Street businesses” found along main streets in this area such as “Mom and Pop retail stores,” storefronts offering an array of services, small restaurants and cafes, and many others.
Fourth Economy Consulting, the firm now working on the state plan, worked with the Greater Newport Chamber to launch in 2018 the Connect Greater Newport initiative that works on business retention and expansion in the area that includes all of Newport and Bristol counties except Little Compton and Barrington.
Fourth Economy along with the state’s CommerceRI is currently providing information about programs to allow as many businesses to get back into business as soon as possible.
Among the many programs available is the Rhode Island Superior Court business protection program called the “Business Recovery Plan,” in response to disruptions caused by COVID-19.
The court will provide supervised protections for Rhode Island businesses so they can remain operational, access new working capital, and pay debts. The court will be using a non-liquidating receivership model, which will keep the business and its assets intact.
The court will appoint a receiver to oversee the preparation of an operating plan for businesses in the program. Once new working capital, such as disaster relief or small business assistance, is received by the businesses, they will be able to maintain operations, address their debts, and begin to generate revenues again.
Donovan-Boyle said state officials and the state’s Congressional delegation will keep the chamber abreast of other state and federal public policies that affect the business community going forward.
“We’ve never been faced with anything like this before,” she said. “The health and safety of our employees is the highest priority. We are eager to reopen the economy, but we want protections for our customers and employees. We are not pushing anyone to move before we should.”