By: Kimberly Houghton, Union Leader Correspondent
LaBelle Winery in Amherst recently booked 10 weddings in a two-week span — all couples abandoning wedding plans in Massachusetts for nuptials in New Hampshire, where COVID-19 regulations are less stringent.
Most of those weddings at LaBelle are happening within the next two months.
“Plus, we still had weddings on the books. We are doing really well,” owner Amy LaBelle said Monday. “We have about 40 weddings planned from now until the end of the year.”
Wedding venues throughout New Hampshire are trying to accommodate brides and grooms from Massachusetts by offering weekday wedding ceremonies and other fast-turnaround services.
“The majority of our business right now is from Massachusetts,” said Matthew Fish, owner and event manager at Curtis Farm Outdoor Weddings and Events in Wilton. “We are under attack from people wanting to get married here in New Hampshire.”
In New Hampshire, indoor venues are currently permitted to host weddings at 50 percent capacity with certain restrictions in place, including masks for staff and frequent cleaning and disinfecting. In Massachusetts, the requirements are not as flexible. There, indoor weddings are allowed a maximum of 25 guests, with a face mask mandate and no dance floor. Outdoor weddings can have up to 100 guests.
“We are now doing weddings with such short notice,” said Fish, explaining many Bay State couples already have their vendor team in place, but need a new place to have the wedding since their previous venue in Massachusetts is no longer able to accommodate their needs.
Fish said it was devastating when Curtis Farm had to close and essentially cancel its entire wedding season. Now it is slowly recovering, with six upcoming weddings planned — most of them involving Massachusetts brides and grooms, he said.
Quick turnaroundTypically there is about a year or a year and a half turnaround for weddings, but Fish said his business is working with couples who still want to get married this season.
Birch Wood Vineyards Event Center in Derry is enjoying a similar bump in business.
“Thankfully, as of August, we are pretty busy with events for the remainder of 2020, and a lot of Massachusetts brides are reaching out looking for dates,” said Melisa Condon, the wedding and event planner at Birch Wood Vineyards.
The venue resumed wedding ceremonies this month, although some couples are opting to delay their larger wedding receptions for next year, Condon said. The next biggest trend, she said, is weekday weddings — especially for Massachusetts couples looking to tie the knot quickly here in the Granite State.
“Obviously we still have guidelines here in New Hampshire, and we have to modify and adapt to those, specifically the 50 percent capacity restriction,” Condon said.
She said brides and grooms, for the most part, are understanding about the situation.
Tim Briggs, chairman of the Wedding and Events Alliance of Massachusetts, said that because of the less stringent restrictions in neighboring states, the wedding and event industry in Massachusetts is losing business to venues in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
“Venues in New Hampshire are doing Wednesday and Thursday night weddings because so many brides are going there. It is virtually unheard of. I am hopeful that we can get the rules changed here,” Briggs said.
By: Tom Eastman, Conway Daily Sun
CONWAY — Businesses are reporting that most, but not all, customers are complying with requests for them to wear masks, though there have been a few confrontations with people who say the requirement is violating their civil rights.
“I would say that 99.9 percent of our customers are cooperative, and have no problem wearing masks. It’s about protecting everyone,” said Stu Dunlop, owner of the Kearsarge Inn of North Conway and the Wildcat Tavern in Jackson, expressing a sentiment that was echoed by many local retailers and shopkeepers.
“We had one couple — let’s call them virus deny-ers — who said we were denying their right to do what they want. We agreed, saying we respected their position immensely, but we just maintained our right to deny them service out of respect for our staff and fellow customers and said we were sorry they would not be dining with us that evening. When they asked if we could recommend another restaurant I said no, that all of our local restaurants are requesting that customers wear masks,” added Dunlop.
Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Janice Crawford is leading a public relations and public education effort to encourage the public to wear masks and social distance by putting up signs at highly visible spots in Conway and North Conway, including at the Conway Village Information Booth, Settlers Green and Settlers Crossing and in North Conway’s Schouler Park.
Also, about 20 signs are to be placed at businesses, urging compliance and respect of the safety of locals.
Depending on the location, they bear such messages as: “Please protect our Valley: WEAR A MASK; Thank you;” “If you love our locals, please protect them by wearing a mask. Thank you;” and “If you love the valley … please wear a mask. Thank you.”
The larger signs all show a symbol of the coronavirus with a depiction of a masked man above the chamber’s logo, “Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Bureau: Anything is Possible.”
Interviewed Wednesday, Crawford said that the chamber ifs walking a delicate balance between keeping the valley safe for residents and visitors alike while promoting tourism.
She agreed with a comment made by the Wildcat Inn and Tavern’s Dunlop that the upcoming fall and winter season will depend on how well summer businesses do in maintaining those safe protocols.
“That is absolutely true,” said Crawford.
A good place to see how the new normal is working is to look at Story Land, the popular family attraction which opened July 17 to passholders and to the public on Friday.
In addition to the mask requirement and other protocols, the biggest change is that the storybook-themed amusement park that has been in business since 1954 now includes limited capacities and requires all guests to have online reservations and advance ticket purchases.
“The first weekend went surprisingly well, much better than expected,” said Story Land’s general manager Eric Dziedzic. “Not everybody is happy about having to wear a mask, especially in the heat like we had last weekend. Most people are telling us they are happy to be here, happy to be outside and happy to be able to do something with their families.”
He said the adjacent Living Shores Aquarium, meanwhile, remains closed until further notice. “Seventy-five percent of that attraction is interactive and we cannot do interactive with current guidelines — you can’t put your hands into a touch tank or have the birds in the aviary land on you,” said Dziedzic.
Because Mount Washington Valley is an outdoor activity mecca, surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest, use has been in great demand this spring and summer due to the constraints of the pandemic on indoor activity.
Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan reports that rescues and use are up, and popular WMNF spots such as Lower Falls on the Kancamagus Highway (U.S. Route 112) and Diana’s Baths on West Side Road have been swamped.
The issue of public rudeness during this pandemic summer of daytrippers flocking to local recreational hotspots such as Davis Park, Diana’s Baths, First Bridge and the Smith-Eastman Canoe Launch was also discussed by Conway selectmen at their meeting last Tuesday, with Town Manager Tom Holmes noting that local recreation spots are being “overrun” by day-trippers with resultant increases in trash, drunkenness and even nudity.
Despite those complaints, business owners note, things are improving since the reopening under the state’s 2.0 stay-at-home orders.
“I think for the most part, people are being pretty considerate,” said former Selectman Ray Leavitt of Leavitt’s, “but we have had a few incidents, mostly concerning our social distancing. We have signs on the outside of the bakery, limiting capacity to four persons at a time and to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet apart. We also allow only one person per group and recommend face covering.”
One customer in particular at the start of the pandemic guidelines wanted to shake another customer’s hand there in the tight confines of the small bakery.
“The other customer didn’t want to do it, and kept saying ‘no,’ as he backed up. So, it got tense for a moment or two,” said Leavitt, who said as time has gone by, he and his wife Beth have noticed a trend where fellow customers are educating one another on the need to wear a mask to protect everyone involved.
“There really has been more compliance over the past three to four weeks,” said Leavitt.
More disturbing, however, was the feedback from Rachael Brown of Valley Auto Brokers, a car sales, rental and truck rental company located at the Glen Warehouse in Glen.
Brown reported an incident last week involving a pair of two young men in their 20s, one from New Jersey and another from Illinois. Neither were wearing masks when they came into her office. Brown offered both a mask. The man renting the car accepted, his friend who had driven him onto the site refused.
Brown said another customer, a local woman, was told by the man without the mask “your state doesn’t require masks, so I don’t have to wear one.” A heated discussion followed, and then the woman felt uncomfortable receiving some “menacing looks.
That proved to be the last straw for Brown after a series of rude interactions that she says has been on the increase during the pandemic. “I have been cursed at, had keys thrown at me,” she said.
Come August 17, she will no longer be renting Hertz cars, but she will continue her auto detailing, consignment auto sales and Penske truck rentals. After a few months’ respite, she and Hertz have agreed to revisit the issue, but for now, she’s taking a breather from the car rental business.
But with President Donald Trump this week finally embracing the practice of wearing masks, it appears that times are changing to a more cooperative attitude.
“When we first reopened in early May, when we made recommendations about people wearing masks, there was not a lot of cooperation,” said Dot Seybold, general manager of Settlers Green. “But over the last week, I have received reports from a majority of stores that most people are wearing masks. We also give them out at the stores if they don’t have them. Some people grumble, but people are cooperating.”
Restaurateurs Terry O’Brien of the Red Parka, Nora Mulkern Bean of the Shannon Door and Vito Marcello of Vito Marcello’s Italian Bistro say that customers for the most part are understanding about the CDC and state guidelines. “I think people have been good. There were a few incidents of people grumbling off but not many,” said O’Brien. Bean said one message she’d like to get out there is that staff have added responsibilities while performing their tasks, while wearing masks, and that it is extra work for everyone so “please be patient.” Marcello said, “Wearing masks is common sense and a little common sense goes a long way.”
Ray Boutin of Zeb’s, Laura Cummings of White Birch Books, and Deb Jasien of Fields of Ambrosia said their customers have been respectful.
“People are just happy to be able to be out and doing stuff. We have masks for people who need them at the front of the store but most people are wearing them. There may have been one or two incidents of a masked customer feeling it was their job to point out to another the need to wear one but for the most part our guidelines have worked out very well,” said Boutin of North Conway Village’s popular tourist-oriented store.
Added Cummings, “Number one, we have amazing customers. We’ve had only one customer since we reopened n May who had a problem wearing a mask, threatening to sue us under ADA compliance — we just told him that we would be very happy to provide him with curbside service, thank you.”
By: Denise J. Wheeler, Seacoastonline.com
It’s a pleasant July evening during the biggest vacation week of the year, but COVID-19 has cast its shadow on downtown Portsmouth’s bustling summer sheen. Instead of elbow-to-elbow tourists at cocktail-studded tables, restaurants are operating at 50% capacity or less. Some are still shuttered.
Opening the doors this summer means restaurateurs have had to pull off a new modus operandi and a new look. But, they say, that alone doesn’t ensure their viability. A safety net of federal and state aid, as well as creative, agile policy changes on the part of city government, are also critical if they are going to make it through the winter.
“We are all writing the playbook as we go,” said chef Matt Louis, who co-owns Moxy and The Franklin, which are temporarily closed, and Street and Luigi’s West End Pizzeria, which are open. “The only way forward with a chance to break even under the current guidelines is the magic trifecta of revenue from indoor-outdoor seating and takeout. The pressing reality now is that most places in Portsmouth can’t hit all three.”
That’s why two of Louis’s establishments are still closed more than three weeks after the state’s restaurants were given the green light to serve customers indoors. The seating capacity limit of 50% in the four New Hampshire counties hardest hit by COVID-19, Rockingham, Hillsborough, Strafford and Merrimack, dealt an added blow to Portsmouth restaurateurs, many of whom pay high rents for small spaces. Restaurants in the state’s other, and more northern counties, can operated at 100%, but still must keep patrons at least 6 feet apart.
Despite their disastrous impact, Louis is not complaining about the government mandates.
“The future is unknown and, frankly, what is black and white is that our businesses cannot survive like this,” he said. “But I don’t disagree with the guidelines. I don’t see any other way this can be approached. It’s a tough spot to be in.”
Louis, a James Beard award semifinalist chef, says there is little hope The Franklin will hit the trifecta. The narrow sidewalk out front is paved with uneven, broken bricks. There are no parking spaces to extend into. Its fine dining menu with an emphasis on oysters does not lend itself to a takeout model. And due to the restaurant’s design, which features a spacious bar in the center, it accommodates about 30 to 35 socially distant seats, as opposed to the 76 they had B.C.-19 (before COVID-19).
“I don’t see a way we are going to break even, but we are going to open because we have to roll the dice and hope the damage is minimal. We still have expenses, including rent to pay,” Louis says. “Luckily, our PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan is extended to the end of October. We have a better chance at survival and getting loan forgiveness by opening. If we don’t get our PPP loan extended, The Franklin has zero chance of making it.”
Louis was able to open Luigi’s and Street because they have patio space out front and a strong takeout following. He is working with the city to create more outdoor capacity for Moxy.
Last month, Louis was among the 5,466 New Hampshire business-owners who received a grant from the $400 million Main Street Relief Fund, distributed to the state as part of the federal CARES Act. According to the governor’s office, each grant covers 17% of a business’s losses.
That aid, Louis says, is critical.
He estimates without government assistance at least 90% of all independently owned restaurants will go under.
“Believe me, I don’t want more government assistance,” he said. “But these are just the facts. I don’t foresee any other way.”
The Portsmouth Brewery also got a Main Street loan and has pulled off the trifecta model, reopening as Gov. Chris Sununu’s phased strategy for restaurants allowed. But that is no silver bullet. Utilizing an existing patio and additional seating in a paved lot behind the restaurant for outdoor seating is little more than a Band-Aid.
Given the state’s regulations, the brewery is generating about 50% of its typical revenue.
“At that rate, we are a literally not making a profit,” owner Peter Egelston said. “We are likely operating at a deficit or breaking even. Nothing can fix that until we have more capacity. We are happy to be open, but this is not a long-term solution.
“This is the time of year restaurants are usually putting money in the bank. The fact that none of us are making money, much less putting it in the bank, is a real concern. We’ll be going into the slow winter season without the cash reserves we normally have.”
Louis, and other owners of downtown restaurants, have uniformly echoed that concern. When considering the long view, the months of January and February bring dire predictions that call to mind the Game of Thrones’ ominous “winter is coming” catchphrase.
“The scariest part for me is not the outcome of outdoor dining,” Louis said. “It’s winter when we will likely see an economy in recession, unemployment and federal aid dry up. January and February – that’s when we will see the true ramifications of all this.”
Still, al fresco dining is a key part of the immediate response. In a city where there are more restaurant seats than residents, city councilors recognize the industry’s symbiotic connection to Portsmouth’s economy and culture. They formed the Portsmouth Citizen Response Task Force on June 1 to provide assistance to businesses in jeopardy, including restaurants.
Since its first meeting June 9, its 21 members have been working with city officials and an independent group of locals to create more outdoor opportunities and a CDC-compliant path forward. Soon after its formation, the city approved outdoor dining permits for 40-plus restaurants in a 3-day period. By the end of the first week of July, barricades were up throughout the downtown and dining tables stood on what used to be parking spaces.
Task force member Russ Grazier said its goal is to act as quickly as possible to create revenue-generating opportunities specifically for restaurants, retail and performance venues. The group currently has a subcommittee to transform the Bridge Street parking lot into a pop-up performance/retail space with the Black Trumpet as the anchor restaurant, a beer garden, and guest restaurants, including Louis’s Moxy.
A second subcommittee is working on downtown street dining.
“We are putting a high priority on safety and recommendations from the state while ensuring Portsmouth businesses don’t go under during the pandemic,” Grazier said. “Everyone is putting in a strong, good-faith effort to make Bridge Street happen. The challenge is we are fighting time and accelerating all our planning. As a result, we are tackling a lot of problems concurrently. It’s been challenging in that respect, but it is going to happen and we hope to get about three months of activity there.”
The task force was aiming to get the Bridge Street pop-up going by July 15, but that date is not confirmed.
By: Rick Green, The Laconia Daily Sun
CONCORD — Residents of New England states are no longer required to self quarantine for 14 days before staying in hotels and other lodging in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday.
The requirement that people attest that they underwent such a quarantine will remain in force for people from outside the six New England states, which, in addition to New Hampshire, are Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.
Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said, “for a lot of folks this is quite a big deal.
“Based on our current circumstances, we aren't seeing anywhere near the number of folks from far afield,” he said. “They are primarily from New England drive-in markets. Every little bit helps and we certainly welcome the governor’s decision and are excited that it landed before the 4th of July Weekend and hopefully we can have folks take advantage of that.”
Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber, said it was important to ease the quarantine requirement for New England residents.
“We’re coming into tourism season,” she said. “I’m happy to see New Hampshire is taking that step — Maine and Massachusetts had already done so. So I think this kind of opens it up.”
She said asking people to attest that they have undergone a quarantine creates a kind of honor system.
“You don’t know if they are telling the truth or not,” Gifford said. “The biggest thing is to wear masks and practice the safety guidelines that are still in place.”