An £11m boost to help city centres and towns recover from the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown has been welcomed.
The windfall will help provide a safe environment for visitors, shoppers and workers. It may fund awnings, outdoor furniture, heaters, queuing, Tannoy systems and digital screens.
The Department for Communities is investing £10m in the Capital Covid-19 Recovery Revitalisation Scheme, which will be used in larger town and city centres, with a further £1m coming from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to be used for smaller settlements.
Yesterday Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, who made the announcement with Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, said: "As restrictions have lifted, I appreciate that the current environment still presents very real challenges for businesses who are working hard to deliver for their staff, customers and community.
"Many have demonstrated their resilience and this funding I am announcing today will help reassure traders, shoppers and visitors that our town centres are open for business again in a safe way."
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said it was a welcome investment, adding: "We are pleased that ministers have listened to our concerns. However, much, much more will be needed to support our high streets as they recover from Covid-19.
"The NI Executive needs to bring forward a big, bold recovery plan for our town and city centres and to establish a high streets taskforce comprising of key Executive departments, councils, business and place managers to coordinate policy.
"Sadly, we are going to see a lot more businesses like Eason's close. Our high streets need urgent help, otherwise thousands more jobs will be lost."
Mr Poots said: "As lockdown restrictions are being eased and non-essential shops, cafes, bars and restaurants are opening for business, it is vital that we restore visitor and worker confidence in our town centres and villages as being safe places to work, visit and shop.
"I am confident this revitalisation scheme will help achieve this and I encourage councils to work closely with the Department for Communities to deliver this assistance as efficiently and effectively as possible."
An initial £6m for immediate action has been allocated to the 11 councils, which will administer the funding in their area.
The remaining £5m from the Department for Communities will be used later in the year to address medium to longer-term measures, such as environmental improvements, the adaptation of empty sites or vacant premises for pop-up spaces, or provision of lighting schemes.
Aodhan Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, which represents larger stores, said while shops can open, some are operating at greatly reduced capacity due to social distancing while footfall levels are still low.
"We need both the continued support of government but also the support of the public to come out and get behind Northern Ireland's retail industry. By doing so, they will support not only thousands of jobs in retail but many more in the service and agri-food industries to name but two," he said.
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said it was a step in the right direction.
"We need to work together to ensure our high streets survive the threat they currently face and we would encourage the Executive to create a taskforce to allow us to pool our collective efforts towards rejuvenating our city and town centres," he said.