By: Paula Tracy, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD, NH -- There's a lot of heartburn in the restaurant industry in New Hampshire right now, the Governor's Economic Reopening Task Force was told on Thursday.r
While New Hampshire continues to have a comparatively low percentage of positive cases of COVID-19 — at or under 1 percent — owners and managers of restaurants, like the T-Bones, Cactus Jacks, Manchester's Boards and Brews and the Shaskeen and others asked the state to lift capacity restrictions now at 50 percent in the state's four southern and eastern counties and ease other restrictions that are "killing" their businesses.
They also expressed worries about threats to shut them down during the pandemic from liquor inspectors out looking for violations. They also said that their hostesses and bartending staff are unhappily "policing the public" they serve and that they face the real threat of losing their liquor license if they violate the new rules due to the pandemic.
"You can hear the desperation in their voices today," said state Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, a member of the Governor's Economic Reopening Task Force, who suggested allowing restaurants in Hillsborough, Strafford, Rockingham, and Merrimack counties to open up to 75 percent capacity.
New Hampshire may be doing well now but it has expectations that things could change as students go back to school, universities reopen and the state allows large gatherings from out-of-state visitors for Bike Week, Labor Day, and fall foliage.During its weekly virtual public meeting, the task force heard mostly from restaurants complaining about the current guidance limits.
Gov. Chris Sununu will hear their pleas, assured chairman D.J. Bettencourt, Sununu's policy director. And he said there may be some modifications coming soon.
Some members of the task force, particularly Republican state Sen. Bob Giuda of Warren and state Rep. Tim Lang of Sanbornton, pressed state health officials to give them a metric for opening up and relaxing some of the restrictions.
The state is not looking at any specific metric but a collection of data to determine when to lift restrictions on everything from beaches to bars due to COVID-19, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health. This is a "multi-factorial approach" to easing restrictions or tightening them, the task force was told.
State Rep. Jeffrey Salloway suggested that the state look at the metric of the number of new cases as a percentage of the whole and if it stays at 1 percent or less for the next three weeks, "we can open up carefully."
Currently, that rate is 0.94 percent.
State Rep. Bill Marsh agreed.
Both acknowledged that colleges and schools reopening and Bike Week data would need to be analyzed but that something might be able to occur in the next three weeks if the number holds steady at or below 1 percent.Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, called it a " good discussion."
"When we started all this, the intent was to bend the curve and we have more than done that," he said of COVID-19 cases in the state. "We accomplished that mission. If that is no longer the mission I would be interested to know what the mission is now."
Somers said we have "survived" the summer tourism season and have not seen any spikes in cases. He suggested a meeting with Sununu and health officials on relaxing some of the guidelines on capacity.
A tent with walls, he said, may be worse for the spread of COVID-19 than an indoor wall with air circulation.
By: Alyssa Dandrea, Concord Monitor
Waiters and waitresses without face masks serving food.
Dining tables and menus not sanitized between each customer use.
Lobbies crowded with people waiting for takeout orders.
The consumer complaints alleging violations of New Hampshire’s coronavirus guidelines total in the hundreds, and they continue to roll in daily. Most frequently people report eateries because employees are not wearing faces masks – or wearing them below the nose or on the chin – and because there is a perceived lack of social distancing, a Monitor right-to-know request found.
Since May, the vast majority of complaints have fallen into the hands of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which established a phone number and email to handle concerns about Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive orders on the coronavirus and reopening guidelines for businesses. Several of the office’s victim-witness advocates receive consumers’ complaints, follow up with the reporting parties and reach out to business owners each time an allegation is brought forward. The goal is always to gain voluntary compliance.
Of the complaints received so far, most were resolved after business owners took steps to rectify the issues brought to their attention, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said in a recent interview. However, the attorney general’s office has flagged a handful of businesses in the state, including Makris Lobster and Steak House in Concord, where prosecutors say violations of government orders persist despite repeated follow up. The Attorney General’s Office has fielded multiple complaints about Makris since late May, whereas a few other Concord restaurants received one complaint each, public records show.
“When it comes to enforcing the governor’s executive orders, we find that people generally fall into three categories: We have people who don’t understand the guidelines, we have people who don’t like them and we have people who refuse to follow them,” Edwards said.
Education about the guidelines is always the first step – and sometimes, it’s the second, third and fourth steps, too, she said.
“Most businesses want to do what is right and they come into compliance quickly,” Edwards said. “If we have a concern that our efforts to educate are not working and we’re not getting through to the people we’ve been talking to, we’ll have the police do a follow-up within 48 hours.”
Local police officers will stop by a business to speak with the owner and observe firsthand any violations of COVID-19 guidelines. Sometimes, officers may contact the New Hampshire Liquor Commission for additional guidance, or a municipality’s health inspector may become involved if a violation is observed during a routine inspection.
Law enforcement has discretion in deciding how to enforce an emergency order, but their primary objective is to educate. In the event of repeated violations, police are advised to issue a business a written warning, which informs them that future non-compliance may lead to criminal charges, according to guidance issued by the attorney general’s office in March.
“If the business does not comply after a written notice from police, the attorney general’s office will issue a letter to the business, letting them know that further legal action may be necessary,” Edwards said. “We do expect to issue a few of these for the first time.”
By: Kimberly Houghton, New Hampshire Union Leader
Representatives from the retail, restaurant and grocery industries are voicing opposition to a proposal in Nashua that would require businesses to enforce that customers wear face masks into their establishments.
“This is going on all over the country. Our national associations and retail leaders are adamant that retailers shouldn’t be policing this,” Nancy Kyle, president of the New Hampshire Retail Association, said Thursday.
This week, the Nashua Board of Aldermen was presented with a proposed amendment to its existing mask ordinance that was approved in May and already requires customers to wear face masks while visiting stores, restaurants and other business establishments in Nashua.
The new proposal, if adopted by aldermen, states that “no business and no employee of any business shall provide goods or services to any person not complying with face covering requirements … no business and no employee of any business shall permit a person to remain on its premises in violation of these requirements.”
“In some instances these would be 16-year-old kids who are being asked to enforce this,” said Kyle, stressing confrontations about mask use have already led to verbal and physical altercations throughout the nation.
John Dumais, president of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, agreed. He has heard from several members around the state who are worried that if this amended ordinance is approved in Nashua, that other communities will attempt to do the same.
There has already been reports of some strong language and shouting from belligerent customers toward teen grocery store workers who are asking them to wear masks into businesses, according to Dumais.
“They get intimidated very quickly, and that is unfortunate because they are already working extra hard to keep things sanitized in the store,” he said. “We are there to serve the customer and not to enforce masks.”
In most of these situations, Dumais said the employee is not trained for confrontational situations. Grocery store workers have no problem posting signs that face masks are required, or even handing out free masks if they can afford them, but if a customer refuses to wear one, Dumais said it is not the employee’s responsibility to make sure they do.
“This puts another burden on these businesses that are already struggling to survive,” said Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.
While many businesses are requiring that masks be worn, Somers said there really isn’t much that can be done if someone isn’t in compliance, except to ask kindly that they put on a mask.
Some restaurant employees throughout New Hampshire have already quit their jobs and left in tears because it is a difficult situation when a hostess asks someone to follow the requirements and they refuse, explaining it places a lot of pressure on personnel that are not trained to handle it.
Somers has already spoken with some Nashua businesses about the proposal, and he admits there is some angst surrounding the situation.
By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD — Effective immediately, everyone at a “scheduled gathering” of 100 or more people in New Hampshire must wear a face covering, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday.
The specter of up to 250,000 motorcycle riders attending a 10-day rally in Sturgis, S.D., influenced what the governor called a “proactive” move to prevent super-spreading of COVID-19 in New Hampshire.
“We are really trying to stay proactive and ahead of the game heading into the fall season,” Sununu said of the executive order.
The state will impose fines against event organizers who fail to enforce this mandate, he said.
State prosecutors are working on what those fines would look like, Sununu said.
“Sturgis was a real warning sign to us. That brought a second level of awareness to us,” Sununu said. “This is something we can do reasonably.”
The two-term Republican governor said enforcement agents with the New Hampshire Liquor Commission will be “out in force” making sure bars and restaurant owners are complying with rules that state patrons are not to be “standing around” inside either establishment.
Sununu said he is confident that owners will make certain rules are followed, but state regulators have the authority to pull the liquor license of any violating business.
“There have been super-spread events tied to that conduct all over the country,” Sununu said.
Still not statewide
The mask mandate does not apply to private businesses or schools, unless they have a “prescheduled” event with a large crowd, such as an assembly in a school auditorium, Sununu said.
New Hampshire is the only state without a requirement that people wear face coverings in public if they are unable to practice social distancing.
Nashua and six other communities have adopted their own local ordinances requiring masks.
Sununu said enforcement of a statewide mandate would be difficult and that voluntary wearing of face coverings has risen dramatically in recent weeks.
“You can’t regulate everything and everyone all of the time,” Sununu said. This requirement puts the onus on the event organizer and not those in attendance, he said.
State officials on Tuesday announced 21 new COVID-19 cases and one new hospitalization.
New Hampshire has had just one reported death from COVID-19 in the past week, the lowest number since the first fatalities in March.
COVID-19 has been a contributing cause in 419 deaths in New Hampshire, with roughly 80% of those linked to long-term care settings.
Democratic candidate for governor Dan Feltes of Concord remained critical of Sununu.
“Governor Sununu is playing politics with public health. With no guidance on school reopening, with no action around the Trump rally, and with the lack of a mask requirement, Governor Sununu has shown he’s unwilling to make tough decisions that protect the public health,” Feltes said in a statement.
By: Ray Duckler, Concord Monitor
At the Foothills of Warner restaurant, the steps out front lead to a porch with inviting old-style wooden rocking chairs and signs that read “Breakfast All Day” and “A Taste of Home.”
Inside, though, the stools that kids once spun on while waiting for waffles and hot chocolate, the ones that line the long, narrow counter up front, are not spinning these days.
It’s dark in there, like many other small businesses across the country that have closed under the weight of COVID-19.
For many local merchants, curb-side pickup and takeout orders and federal grants have simply failed to keep them up and running. The enemy is too resilient, too crafty, showing that a cohesive defense is desperately needed to stamp it out.
In Warner, Schoodacs and its mouth-watering baked goods also closed, although its owner, Darryl Parker, announced on Facebook last month that he’s sold his business and the new boss will be named soon. The new business name, too.
Deb Moore owned the Foothills restaurant with her husband, Ron, for 16 years.
“We run such a tight margin here that it’s going to be very difficult,” Moore said before closing in mid-July.
The loss of these traditional landmarks alters the town’s old-feel personality of wooden railings and porches and homemade signs, and the image reminiscent of a drawing from the Saturday Evening Post.
And this Main Street USA, certainly less than a mile long, somehow has offered a smorgasbord of entertainment – painting; acoustic music; Children’s programs; dance; museums; an outdoor amphitheater, sunken low, surrounded by steep grasslands; the Warner Fall Foliage Festival; the food, the food and the food.
The Foothills played a big role in all of that.
“It was pure hometown, locals hanging out, an institution for our town, so we are feeling that loss,” said Katharine Nevins, who owns MainStreet BookEnds across Main Street from the Foothills.
By: Julie Huss, The Eagle-Tribune
DERRY — Making sure the state's small businesses continue to get support from the federal government was a key issue on Friday morning as U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., paid a visit to one local restaurant to hear more about how COVID-19 has affected the business.
Shaheen met with T-Bones' co-owners Tom Boucher and Bill Greiner to hear more about how the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, has given the restaurant the lifeline needed to continue to operate through the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant proprietors also co-own Copper Door and Cactus Jack's businesses.
The visit also highlighted Shaheen's support to provide more relief to the Granite State's small businesses hit hard economically.
The Derry visit followed the senator's successful effort on the Senate floor to extend the PPP deadline until Aug. 8.
Gathered at an outdoor table at the restaurant on Crystal Avenue, Shaheen heard about how this local restaurant has kept its business going during the past several months of COVID-19 challenges.
That includes following all safety guidelines put down by the state for allowing 50% indoor capacity and a popular outdoor seating area as well.
T-Bones already had offered a small, garden-style outdoor area during warm months before the virus hit, but then installed a large tent in the front parking lot to accommodate its patrons for outdoor and safely distanced seating.
Once the weather turns cooler, that option will go away.
"We are very concerned when it gets colder," Boucher said, adding the additional outdoor dining space has helped increase the restaurant's sales up about 40%.
"And people are just not that comfortable inside," Boucher added.
Greiner said once COVID-19 hit, the restaurant did suffer by losing indoor dining sales, but kept up with a robust take-out business. He said it was an added expense to install the outdoor tent area for dining in the parking lot.
"We know we are making the sacrifices needed, but we will (eventually) lose our outdoor dining capacity" Greiner said.
The PPP funding has been a lifeline for small businesses in New Hampshire, with more than $2.5 billion in assistance disbursed to more than 24,000 businesses across the state.
But, many businesses receiving the support are still struggling. Shaheen has called for the passage of the Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act, legislation she introduced, that would allow small businesses to access a second round of PPP loans.
The senator said the stalemate in Washington, D.C., over the next round of potential COVID-19 relief funding could be solved, but there are several sticking points between the Republicans and Democrats.