By: Patrick O'Grady, Granite State News Collaborative
For the past six months, restaurants have had to adapt, improve and overcome in order to stay in business during the pandemic. As colder weather started, Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association, was concerned that the end of outdoor dining, which he called a “saving grace,” could spell disaster.
But guidance from Gov. Chris Sununu, announced on Sept. 24, now allows restaurants in the state to operate at 100% capacity indoors, provided they use barriers between dinners who are closer than six feet to other parties.
“I think it will help pretty significantly for a lot of places,” Somers said a day after Sununu’s announcement on Sept. 24. “It will give them greater flexibility and hopefully help them survive to the spring.”
Prior to the announcement, restaurants were allowed to operate at 100%, but the required social distancing between parties really meant they were at less than 70 percent of capacity, most say.
At Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Keene, the new regulations will give owner Gianluca Paris the option to add two to three additional tables. Paris said he needs to research what options are available for barriers and their costs.
“I will go forward if it is viable and not financially distressing or changes the look of the restaurant,” he said. “It will need to work in our style.”
The financial impact of safety regulations
Justin Rivilin, general manager of the River House Restaurant in Portsmouth, said that the state’s decision might seem like a good idea at first but the rules don’t recognize that the cost of the barriers may be prohibitive to many places. He said online prices for a required rigid barrier are $700 “a pop.”
“That may not be feasible for restaurants that are on the fence of closing (down),” Rivilin said. “I don’t think the state is giving us enough flexibility.”
Rivilin believes the state’s restaurant industry has demonstrated over the last several months it can operate responsibly as there have been no major outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with eating establishments and the state should give owners more latitude.
Rivilin said he greets, with a mask on, a few thousand patrons each week, and has not contracted the virus.
“If anyone should get sick it should be me,” he said.
His idea for barriers includes heavy-duty curtain material, which is not allowed under the state’s guidelines.
“I know we can do it safely with the barriers I have in mind,” said Rivilin, who relied on increased outdoor seating over the summer and takeout with 60 percent of their indoor tables and chairs in storage. “It would be safe to sit down.”
Even before the new rules, restaurants were spending a lot to keep patrons safe. Muffy Copenhaver, a partner at Gordi’s Fish and Steak House in Lincoln. Gordi’s switched to disposable paper menus rather than constantly disinfecting laminated ones.
“I just got a bill for $750 from the printer,” Copenhaver said earlier this month.
‘Keeping our heads above water’
Copenhaver initially thought that the effects of the pandemic would be short-term.
“I thought we would reopen for Memorial Day,” she said.
Instead, she’s left with reduced business months later. Revenue at Gordi’s has been at about 80% during the summer, but the all-important foliage season has her worried.
“We are pretty nervous about the fall and winter. Right now there are no Canadian license plates in our parking lot,” Copenhaver said, referring to the usual influx from across the border for fall foliage season. “We are losing tourists from England, Germany and others.”
Gordi’s is a short drive from the Loon Mountain Ski Resort and the impact COVID-19 will have on skier visits and overnight lodging is anyone’s guess right now.
“Right now we are keeping our heads above water,” Copenhaver said. “If we can do that, we should be OK.”
Anthony Barnett, who owns Jesse’s Tavern and Molly’s in Hanover said the pandemic has been difficult to weather, especially when nearby Dartmouth sent students home. Jesse’s cut staff to about 60% of the usual number of employees and relied on expanded outdoor seating to help soften the economic impact.
“It definitely has not been easy; a real challenge,” Barnett said. “I’ve been in the business for 25 years and have never seen anything like this. It is just crazy. The decline in sales has been unimaginable.”
Supporting the industry
Paris, of Luca’s Mediterranean Café, had to get creative to attract customers. During the toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, he started offering a free roll with each takeout order.
“That gave everyone a good chuckle,” he said.
But what made a bigger difference was when Keene officials created the Keene Rebound Committee to help the business community. The committee engaged local businesses, which eventually led to the altering of a local ordinance on outdoor dining. That let Luca’s add tables while still meeting state social-distancing requirements.
“They asked ‘what can we do to help you get through this,’” Paris said.
Policy decisions like that – and the new guidance from the Governor’s office – can make a big difference for a struggling industry. Somers said he had heard from some NHLRA members and they were pleased with the governor’s recent decision.
“For the most part, they are very excited,” he said.
Many members are also waiting to see whether there will be additional federal support for the restaurants.
“All these bits and pieces will show whether we can salvage most or a portion of the industry,” Somers said.
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