By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD -- After weeks of intense lobbying by the restaurant industry, Gov. Chris Sununu agreed Thursday to permit eateries to move their tables closer than six feet apart if they are separated by protective barriers.
Restaurant owners have been pushing for the change to permit more customers inside during the busy fall foliage season and in anticipation of the end of outdoor dining with the advent of cooler weather.
The change takes effect Oct. 1.
“We are very confident we can move forward with this model in a very safe manner,” Sununu said.
Other states have taken this step without seeing COVID-19 outbreaks.
The New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, which worked on the barrier provision, warned that many restaurants would not survive with their existing table configurations once outdoor dining ends.
On Friday, Sununu will appear with several restaurant owners at Newick’s Lobster House in Dover, where examples of barriers will be on display.
Sununu said he has been mindful of the need to expand restaurant dining gradually after large crowds in restaurants and bars triggered widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in Southern and Southwestern states.
“We have taken smart steps as we were opening up restaurants,” Sununu said.
But Sununu said he rejected another persistent industry demand to permits games such as darts and pool in bars and restaurants.
Last week, his economic reopening task force unanimously endorsed letting bars and restaurants offer these games.
“It’s not fair that a pool hall or bowling alley can have a pool table but a restaurant can’t,” said state Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton.
But Sununu said this form of “mingling” is just what could lead to a COVID-19 spike. Allowing the games also could make many patrons uncomfortable about dining out.
“People are up, they are standing together, usually within six feet of one another. I think it’s a small sacrifice to ask,” Sununu said.
The only accommodation Sununu has approved is to let games occur in businesses that might serve food and alcohol but whose primary source of income comes from the games themselves.
“We have made those exceptions in some very rare cases,” Sununu said.
Phased reopeningSince the pandemic began, the state has made several moves to gradually open up dining, beginning with outdoor-only dining in the late spring.
Following that, Sununu agreed to allow 50% capacity indoors.
In mid-June, he raised that to 100% capacity in the six counties where COVID-19 cases were low.
In advance of the Labor Day weekend, the governor agreed to expand capacity to 100% statewide but kept the six-foot table restriction.
Also. Sununu agreed earlier to increase from 6 to 10 the number of people at a restaurant table to accommodate large family dining.
In a related move, D.J. Bettencourt, Sununu’s policy director, told the reopening task force Thursday that the administration has endorsed a change in outdoor restaurant dining that could permit owners to install temporary walls on outdoor tents as long as at least one side of the tent isn’t walled in and there is cross-ventilation throughout the space.
Bettencourt said this tweak only applies if city or town officials agree to these changes.
”We want to make sure the tent is safe and secure and that you aren’t in any way creating any sort of a fire hazard,” Bettencourt said.
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