Churches and other houses of worship in Rhode Island will soon able to welcome more of the faithful for in-person services and bar areas will be allowed to reopen under the loosening of some coronavirus restrictions announced Thursday by state Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor.

“We are very pleased that today we are able to offer yet more flexibility to businesses in Rhode Island; the improving public health conditions enable us to do so," he said.

Under the guidelines that take effect Friday, houses of worship will be allowed to fill to 40% capacity, up from the current capacity limit of 25%, as long as worshipers are appropriately spaced out, Pryor said at a news conference.

The 40% capacity limit also applies to performing arts centers, theaters and other venues with structured seating arrangements, he said.

Bar areas in restaurants that have been closed for months are allowed to reopen as of Friday with a maximum of four people per table, a time limit of 90 minutes per party, with an 11 p.m. closing time. Patrons must order food and no standing service will be allowed, he said.

“Our goal continues to be keeping people safe and out of the hospital, but we are also beginning to identify ways that we can provide our local businesses with incremental flexibility without increasing the infection rate, our hospitalization rate, and our mortality rate," said Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee, expected to take over as governor when Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as President Joe Biden's commerce secretary.

Social gathering limits, which had been restricted to just members of the same household, are also being relaxed so that members of two households when indoors, or three households when outdoors, will be allowed to gather, state Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said.

The rules are being relaxed because the state is controlling the spread of the coronavirus. But she warned that the state could take a step backward, especially if more transmissible variants of the virus from the U.K., Brazil and South Africa are detected in Rhode Island.

In fact, Alexander-Scott said, they are likely already in the state.



The state's vaccination efforts appear to be working, Alexander-Scott said.

As evidence, she said there has been a “precipitous drop” in the number of infections among health care workers in recent weeks, who were among the first state residents to get vaccinated.

“This is encouraging news,” Alexander-Scott said. “We have a vaccine that we know works."

Two state-run mass vaccination sites at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence and in Cranston are expected to open next Thursday for residents age 75 and older with appointments, she said. The Dunkin' Donuts Center will be able to administer about 500 shots per day at first, and the Cranston facility about 900 per day, with the ability to ramp up.

Supply remains a problem, she said.

“I want to reiterate that not everyone 75 years of age and older who goes online or calls to make an appointment will get an appointment right away,” Alexander-Scott said. “There is still more demand than supply."

About 93,500 state residents have received their first dose of a vaccine, while more than 40,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to state data released Thursday.



The Department of Health on Thursday reported almost 500 new confirmed coronavirus cases, 15 additional virus-related deaths, and a daily positivity rate of 2.1%.

Of the new cases, 416 were people who tested positive for the first time on Wednesday, and 72 were people who tested positive on previous days.

There have now been more than 120,000 known cases and 2,274 fatalities in the state. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 remained steady at 238 as of Tuesday, the same as the previous day.

The seven-day average positivity rate in Rhode Island has dropped to 2.6%. State health departments are calculating positivity rate differently across the country, but for Rhode Island the AP calculates the rate by dividing new cases by test encounters using data from The COVID Tracking Project.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Rhode Island has also dropped from about 733 on Jan. 27 to almost 456 on Wednesday, according to The COVID Tracking Project.