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.
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