By: Bob Sanders, New Hampshire Business Review
Restaurants throughout New Hampshire will be able to open up to 100% of capacity in the next reopening phase, if they can separate tables by six feet, the Governor’ Economic Re-opening Task Force voted Monday.
But the panel also agreed to pass on a request to the Division of Public Health and Gov. Chris Sununu – who ultimately will make the decision – to allow restaurants to substitute some kind of physical barrier when social distancing is not economically feasible.
“The economics of social distancing doesn’t make sense for our industry,” said Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, who said that the restaurants are “bleeding,” even in the North Country, where 100% capacity is already allowed. “Better than half of them are struggling and need more tables and more turns,” said Somers.
Restaurants opened up for indoor dining on June 15, completing its first reopening phase. But the task force is already looking ahead to phase 2. Last week it issued such guidelines for retailers, and on Monday passed them for childcare facilities.
The second phase may be the last phase, said DJ Bettencourt, the governor’s point man on the task force.
“The next step is to lift all restrictions. I foresee wrapping up first week of July,” he said. “Allowing folks (on the task force) to get back to their day job, so to speak,” though they may be called back as needed
Some of those folks were not so ready go away. Rep. Bill Marsh, R-Wolfeboro, a task force member, noted that if the virus spikes again, necessitating a reopening roll back, the task force would be needed to “be more selective than to just ratchet down everything.” Though he was amenable to await the call of the chair.
But Rep. Jeffrey Salloway, D-Lee, said that instead of awaiting such a call, “we need to be more proactive to prevent a second wave coming to new Hampshire.
‘Very firm’ on distancing
For now, the task force is still discussing the second phase of reopening, which consolidates the myriad lengthy guidelines of the first phase into much shorter guidelines for related industries.
For instance, the aforementioned phase 2 restaurant guidance is part of a broader document that also includes hotels and events facilities.
For restaurants, it would lift the current 50% capacity requirements for eateries in Hillsborough, Rockingham, Merrimack and Strafford counties and it would allow 10 people at a table, compared to the current six-person limit.
But public health officials are “very firm” on the social distancing recommendations, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health.
“We are looking at the states to the south and west and seeing a dramatic increase, she said. “Part of the increase is due to more relaxed rules.”
So the phase 2 guidance will require that tables and patrons at a bar who are not part of the same household must still be six feet apart. The guidance also doesn’t allow standing at bars, but it might be allowed for viewing sporting events as long as participants keep their distance.
At a hearing last week, restaurant owners complained that many bars and restaurants can’t operate at 100% capacity with those social distancing rules, even though outdoor dining is still allowed, since they simply didn’t have enough space – either inside or outside – to spread out.
Also last week, Somers asked health officials to consider that the ventilation in restaurants should allow for some slack for the social distancing rules. He repeated that request Monday, but this time offered another alternative.
“I would not be opposed to have some barriers in place of the six feet,” he said.
By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD -- Restaurant and small bistro owners say they will be unable to break even if their eateries continue to be restricted to half-capacity because of COVID-19.
The complaints to the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force Thursday came only three days after restaurants were allowed to open for indoor service.
Jay Bolduc, operating manager of T-Bones Restaurant in Laconia, said establishments can’t expect their customers to come at staggered times to limit crowds.
“We can’t tell our guests to get hungry at 10 p.m.,” said Bolduc, who chairs the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association’s board of directors.
Michael Buckley, with the Michael Timothy’s Dining Group of restaurants, said increasing seating capacity isn’t the only answer.
“When we go to make the decision to go up to 100%, we must address the table spreading as well,” Buckley said, referring to the requirement that tables be at least six feet apart.
Gov. Chris Sununu on June 5 announced restaurants could open for indoor service on June 15.
The restaurant business was the first sector Sununu chose to reopen in different stages, depending on location.
The governor allowed restaurants to operate at 100% capacity in the six counties with the fewest COVID-19 cases — Coos, Cheshire, Grafton, Belknap, Carroll and Sullivan.
Restaurants in Hillsborough, Rockingham, Strafford and Merrimack counties were limited to 50% capacity. Those four counties have combined to account for almost 90% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
Restaurants in the six counties that are allowed to serve 100% of regular customers must do so through a combination of both indoor and outdoor seating. Indoor seating is still limited to 50%.
Leaders in the lodging and banquet room businesses also argued against their 50% limits.
“It is not at all practical from an operational or an economic point of view,” said Joel Bourassa, director of regional resorts for Vacation Resort International, which operates two resorts in Lincoln.
“This hurts the economy by limiting up to 50% of the reservations that we have to reset later on. This really has to change and soon,” he said.
By: Fred Bevers, Maine Public
For more than a week, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have been encouraging travel around northern New England as a step toward reviving their tourism-dependent economies that have been suppressed by the pandemic. But where exactly you hail from can make a big difference in your ability to move about freely.
Last week, Maine Gov. Janet Mills threw open the doors for New Hampshire and Vermont residents to visit and stay in Maine without any sort of quarantine.
“As you look at the data, the three states have similar health outcomes,” said Heather Johnson, Maine’s commissioner of economic and community development.
With case rates that have generally been much lower than urban areas in New England, and with daily case rates declining in all three states since mid-May, Johnson said it made sense for Maine to revise the rules.
“Once you get outside of the [three] states, it’s a pretty big difference, so it became clear that was a logical break point,” she said.
Unlike Maine, New Hampshire is not making distinctions among travelers from northern and southern New England, or anywhere else.
“The current policy is that New Hampshire residents are welcome to move about the state freely, stay in lodging properties, et cetera,” said Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association. “Out-of-state visitors are required to essentially attest that they have been isolated, at home, for 14 days.”
Lodging operators are asked to get guests to sign a document attesting that they have met the standard and do not have any symptoms.
“I think it certainly presents challenges, don’t get me wrong. This time of year all of us northern New Englanders certainly enjoy having out-of-state visitors. It’s a big part of our local economies. And so these businesses are legitimately trying to figure out ways to navigate this,” Somers said.
That makes New Hampshire hotel and campground operators the envy of their counterparts in Maine, where most out-of-state visitors are barred until the very end of the month. Even then they will face an array of options for quarantines or testing lodging operators say are a turn-off for potential visitors.
Tina Hewitt-Gordon, the general manager of Kennebunkport’s seaside Nonantum Inn, said every time the state adjusts its travel rules, southern Maine sees a rash of cancellations.
“So if they’re not staying at our hotels they’re not going to the restaurants, they’re not going to the retail shops,” Hewitt-Gordon said. “And the long-term effect is just devastating, because what happens next year when they go to make their travel reservations they say ‘hey, wait a minute, we really had a great time in New Hampshire, let’s not go to Maine let’s go to New Hampshire.'”
By: Ryan Lessard, Manchester InkLink
MANCHESTER, NH – Now that New Hampshire restaurants are allowed to open half of their indoor seating to customers, businesses are working double-time to sanitize and space out their tables.
Meanwhile, other small restaurants see no rush in moving people inside, and a recent UNH Survey Center poll shows most people are still staying home.
Andy Day of Cask & Vine in Derry said he and co-owner Alana Wentworth have been working to get ready for the opening of indoor dining Wednesday afternoon, by doing an extra round of sanitizing (using house-made sanitizer at their next-door distillery), and moving about 25 bar stools, and some couches and big chairs into the rear lounge area to make room for spaced out tables.
“We did completely rearrange the dining room,” Day said.
Between three outdoor tables and seven larger indoor tables that seat up to six people, they have a total capacity of about 48, though Day said they won’t likely fill every table.
Dining is available by reservation only.
In the days ahead, they hope to also add seating for up to 12 more people in their adjacent taproom and on the sidewalk in front. Day said the Town Council also approved a plan Tuesday that would allow them to put tables in some street-side parking spaces with Jersey barriers. He expects that will be for beer drinkers only after they come back from a week off for July 4.
Day said they’re taking it one day at a time, not sure what business will be like since the summer is usually their slowest season. But travel restrictions may mean customers who are usually away on vacation may still be around.
The business is running a skeleton crew of Day and Wentworth, a bar manager and a chef, and a fifth person who will come in on weekends to help out. When the brewery opens, Day expects he and Wentworth will work the brewery side while the bar manager covers the front end of the restaurant.
At Shaskeen Irish Pub in Manchester, regular patrons reunited on Monday and Tuesday for the first time in months.
Co-owner Neal Brown said business was steady on Monday until they closed at 1 a.m. People have been lining up outside during regular business hours and served first come, first served.
“We’re trying to be as normal as we can be without infringing on any guidelines,” Brown said.
The front bar area can seat about 10 groups of six or less, and the rear bar can also fit 10 groups, but would need to ensure smaller groups so as not to exceed their current maximum capacity of 110.
So far, the folks at Cask & Vine at Shakseen don’t expect the addition of indoor seating to increase their expenses, but some larger companies are spending more in overhead to comply with the new regulations.
By: Jonathan Phelps, New Hampshire Union Leader
On the first day restaurants were able to reopen indoors after nearly three months, Ron Carlquist grabbed an open stool at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester.
He was the only one at the counter, but customers filled the two open booths. The state’s COVID-19 pandemic guidance allows for 50% capacity.
“It feels good. It really does. I missed this place,” the Manchester resident said after being served his hamburger with pasta salad. “I’m glad they’re open, but I’m glad everybody is doing the right thing and staying apart.”
During the dining ban, Carlquist ordered takeout and sat outdoors at the Lowell Street landmark, but he’s been waiting for a seat back inside since the ban started March 17.
“The food gets cold too fast,” he said of outdoor dining.
The night before the ban was enacted — the eve of St. Patrick’s Day — people rushed out to local bars and restaurants as news spread of the coming closure.
On Monday, many restaurants in the Queen City reported a slow reopening for indoor dining but expect a boost by the weekend. Many restaurants aren’t usually open on Mondays.
“I’m not mad about it,” said Red Arrow server Robin Deary. “It gives us a week to kind of prepare before the weekend when it is definitely going to be a lot busier.”
Most people chose to eat outdoors on Main Street in Nashua, making it hard to tell indoor dining had resumed.
“It is such a nice day outside. Why would you want to be inside?” said Christopher Trulock while eating a sandwich in front of the Nashua Garden at 121 Main St.
The bar and deli had just two or three groups of patrons opt to eat inside on Monday, while the rest preferred to dine outdoors where tables have been set up along the sidewalk and a portion of Main Street blocked to traffic to accommodate restaurants throughout the pandemic.
“I am not sure people even know that restaurants are now open inside at 50%,” said Trulock.
“Even when it is raining we still have people who want to eat outside,” said Kalli Bogdzewic, an employee at the Nashua Garden. “But, we are so grateful and so excited to be able to seat people inside. I just like seeing all of the familiar faces returning.”
Alex LaRoza and his mother, Debra, from Sunapee, decided to eat outside at Consuelo’s Taqueria in Manchester, but only because it was a nice day. They would have no problem dining inside, they said.
“I haven’t been out to a restaurant sitting down for like three months. We’ve done some takeout,” LaRoza said. “I’m totally ready to go indoors, but it is just nicer outside.
Martin Delgadillo, Consuelo’s owner, spent time painting and installing plexiglass around the open kitchen during the shutdown. Business has been slow with all the offices downtown closed, but he had three or four indoor tables full around lunchtime on Monday.
“I think there is still a concern,” he said. “It is the reality of it. It is what it is, we are trying to make the best of it.”
Pickup orders have been steady since the restaurant reopened after Memorial Day. Weekends can get busy for outdoor dining.
By: Jonathan Phelps, New Hampshire Union Leader
Outside the closed Joey’s Diner on Route 101A in Amherst, Peter Duffy took a break from one of his evening bike rides to make a video to post on social media.
“I want to let you know that we miss you and we hope you come back real soon,” the Merrimack resident said from outside the 1950s-style diner.
He’s not the only New Hampshire resident missing his favorite restaurant during the pandemic.
Joey’s, which closed a few days after Gov. Chris Sununu’s March 17 ban on eat-in dining to prevent the spread of coronavirus, hopes to reopen Monday, according to Jamie Arsenault, one of the managers with the restaurant group that also owns Black Forest Cafe in Amherst and Luke’s Bar and Grill in Hudson.
“We only stayed open for about three days,” she said of Joey’s. “We weren’t doing anything for takeout, so we just decided to close down.”
Starting Monday, restaurants in Hillsborough, Rockingham, Strafford and Merrimack counties will be allowed to seat up to 50% of their capacity indoors. Restaurants in the six other counties can open up to full capacity as long as tables are six feet apart.
Some restaurants converted quickly to takeout and delivery, while others decided to remain closed until they could invite diners back. Some restaurants have permanently closed, and more are expected to do so before the pandemic is over.
For the past several weeks, restaurants have become creative with outdoor dining, which Sununu allowed as part of the state’s reopening plans. The openings require masks for servers, parties of no more than six people and other restrictions, such as disposable menus and nothing standing on the tables.
The openings include chains like Bertucci’s, which will be ready to resume indoor dining in Manchester and Salem.
Joey’s Diner, which typically fills to capacity on weekends, plans to take reservations. Customers will have to wait outdoors for a table.
“A typical Saturday we’re on a wait from pretty much 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.,” Arsenault said. That was before the 50% capacity restriction.
Duffy can’t wait to get back to one of his favorite spots to order his usual — scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, side of blueberry pancakes, home fries, orange juice and coffee.
“They are just a major part of the community and they make it a lot more vibrant,” he said. “And we love one of the waiters (Siegfried) — he is freakin’ awesome.”
The restaurant had 22 employees before temporarily closing. Arsenault hopes they will all be back in the next several weeks.
“We are going to open on Monday and see what happens, most of the staff is ready to come back right now,” she said. “We had a few people start back (last week) to clean and get the restaurant ready.”
Much-needed ‘lifeline’Restaurants are working hard to welcome guests back while meeting safety standards, said Mike Somers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging & Restaurant Association.
“I know a lot of businesses were getting pretty desperate, so this is a lifeline,” he said. “A lot of folks are just very happy to get back to what they love.”
All restaurants will be required to make changes regardless of what county they’re located in, he said.
“I think for the most part most folks have been hanging on. We have heard of some closings and I suspect we are going to hear of some more before this is all over,” Somers said. “I think people have figured out a way to survive up until this point.”
Some of the hardest hit will be seasonal restaurants because they’ve already lost about a third of their year.
“We just don’t know what consumer demand is going to be,” Somers said.
By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD -- Nearly three months after their dining rooms were closed, New Hampshire restaurants and banquet halls will soon reopen for indoor dining and wedding receptions, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Friday.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Sununu is opening parts of the state more than the rest, in this case when it comes to sit-down dining.
Starting June 15, restaurants in Hillsborough, Rockingham, Strafford and Merrimack counties will be allowed to seat up to 50% of their capacity.
Restaurants in the six other counties, including businesses in the tourist-driven Lakes Region and North Country, can open up to 100% capacity as long as they have at least 6 feet between tables, Sununu said.
“We are going to take another step, and this time it’s a geographic step,” Sununu said.
Sununu made the distinction because an estimated 90% of the COVID-19 cases have occurred in those four southern counties.
Sununu said the continued incidence of the disease in Massachusetts is another factor.
It’s less likely that a Massachusetts couple will drive to central or northern New Hampshire for dinner, he said.
“When you are opening up a restaurant, one of the fears…is folks in the high-impacted areas (like Massachusetts) would come up and use our restaurants,” Sununu said.
“This will allow us to better manage and control the spread of the disease.”
Likewise, wedding reception venues will be limited to 50% capacity. That will apply uniformly across the state.
Sununu justified the difference between weddings and restaurants by noting that the risk of transmitting the virus at a wedding reception is greater than at a sit-down dinner.
“When you are in a restaurant, the ability to interact between people from table to table is very limited,” Sununu said.
“You are in your own group. When you are in a wedding reception, you are all together, the environment is far more prone to people going throughout the room meeting with family, friends, guests. That’s one of the fundamental differences.”
Other rules for these venues remain the same, including face coverings for staff, disposable menus and frequent cleaning and disinfecting.
By: Kimberly Houghton, Union Leader Correspondent
Restaurants throughout the state that received the first round of money from the Paycheck Protection Program are fearful as their funds are depleting and their restaurants are still unable to accommodate indoor dining.
These restaurants are running out of time, said Mike Somers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.
The money will be gone and there is still no opening date, Somers said during a conference call Thursday with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Small businesses that received PPP money in round one are about to run out of those funds, agreed Bill Greiner, co-owner of Great New Hampshire Restaurants.
“For us, we are literally days away,” Greiner said, noting some businesses will need to make very difficult decisions on whether to cut staff.
Shaheen said there are discussions underway and attempts at legislation to assist those businesses who received the first loan to possibly obtain a second one, however a bipartisan effort will be necessary to get something passed to provide some additional money that is beyond just the hospitality industry.
The Black Trumpet in Portsmouth is another restaurant that is reaching the end of its PPP loan funds and is worried about the uncertain future. Evan Mallet, chef and owner, says it is frustrating that there is no timeline for reopening indoor dining.
Mallet said it is difficult to make plans for staffing and even pay his rent with so many questions still looming.
Shaheen said she understands this is a frightening and difficult time for many business owners in New Hampshire. The tourism and hospitality industry has been hard hit, and in many cases the first to be shut down and among the last to open during the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.
“I do believe that we are able to operate at a safe manner at a reduced capacity inside,” said Sean Brown of The Common Man. While The Common Man inns will be reopening on Friday, he said what is really necessary is the opening of indoor dining — at least at half capacity.
Shaheen said the state recently received about $61 million in federal funds for additional COVID-19 testing, adding that will be helpful as the state continues to open up and push for indoor dining.
“We need a major infrastructure investment package,” she acknowledged, which should be geared to helping these businesses in the long run as well, not just with their immediate needs.