By: Alex LaCasse, Seacoastonline.com
EXETER – Sit-down dining service is beginning to reopen in town, and restaurant owners, with an assist from municipal officials, are getting creative to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
So far, at least nine restaurants have been approved to resume sit-down dining service outside, with several others still finalizing their plans. The state’s phase one regulations for allowing businesses to reopen call for moving dining spaces outdoors, which went into effect May 18.
Restaurants who have reopened for outdoor dining submitted plans to a committee of town staff, including the fire chief, police chief, health officer and director of economic development to approve before Town Manager Russ Dean signed off for them to officially open.
“I would call the effort seamless,” said Darren Winham, the town’s director of economic development. “The Select Board was unanimously supportive of the concept as long as restaurants add the town as additionally insured and adhere to the governor’s provisions.”
Restaurants like the Laney & Lu with outdoor patio space surrounding its takeout window and Sawbelly Brewing, whose landlord approved of them moving operations into the parking lot, only needed to provide a socially distant-compliant plan to town officials. As long as restaurant owners can rope off a section of the outdoor dining space, those possessing an existing liquor license will be allowed to serve alcoholic beverages.
Laney & Lu owner Jennifer Desrosiers said business has been “slow” in the two weeks since she’s been able to offer outside tables. She said because of her small dining room, she is unsure if it will be economically feasible to reopen that portion of her restaurant even when restrictions are loosened to reincorporate indoor dining.
“We’re not seeing as many people as we expected, but we’re beginning to see a lot of our regulars returning, which is really nice to see,” Desrosiers said. “We have 30 seats outdoors for the comfort of our customers and we feel safe with this model for now. We try to keep the patio open until Thanksgiving time, so we’re hoping for good weather through the fall to help keep us busy.”
According to Gov. Chris Sununu’s Economic Reopening Task Force, the second phase of the state’s reopening plan for restaurants entails reopening indoor dining rooms at a reduced capacity, with specific numbers dependent on the square footage of the dining room to account for social distancing. There is no date yet for when the state would allow restaurants to shift to the second phase.
Restaurants in downtown storefronts with little or no outdoor space of their own have provided town officials with plans to use public spaces, in many cases moving onto Water Street sidewalks. To be approved for expanding dining onto town property, they must provide the town with copies of their insurance policies with liability coverage for at least $1 million, per incident.
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