By: Max Sullivan, seacoastonline.com.
HAMPTON -- Heaters have been placed under the tent at the Old Salt where owner Joe Higgins hopes patrons will keep dining as the fall weather creeps in.
The summer brought busy lunches and dinners to the 20 tables under the Old Salt tent, helping it get by while suffering huge losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Higgins said cold weather will be a new challenge for restaurants with strict social-distancing rules in place for indoor dining.
“I’m nervous about after October with what’s going to go on,” Higgins said.
Restaurants are preparing to struggle when outdoor dining is no longer an option. Indoor dining at full capacity has been allowed since August, but restaurant owners say state social distancing guidelines make it impossible.
“We’re still 6-foot distances,” Higgins said. “You can’t be 100%; 100% means nothing.”
Alex Aviles, co-owner at WHYM Craft Brewery and Café, said his restaurant is projecting to be down 20% from its previous year – if it’s filling every seat.
“That would be like if we’re turning and burning tables,” Aviles said. “We’d be 20% down just from the reduction in seating.”
WHYM can keep the tent up in its parking lot until Oct. 31 when the rental company says it must come down due to the risk of snow. Until then, Aviles said WHYM plans to ask the town about putting heaters and additional walling on the tent to extend the season as far as it can go.
Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said industry members are asking the state to approve barriers to be placed between tables so more seats can be filled.
“If you have three booths, you can only seat the ones on each end,” Somers said, adding barriers were discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force. Task force chair D.J. Bettencourt said draft guidelines for barriers could be produced that day or Friday.
“We’re looking for health officials and the state to clarify with us if a barrier will be recognized as a mitigating factor to allow for less than social distancing,” Somers said.
Lynn Marquis, general manager at Sea Dog Brewing Company in Exeter, hopes barriers will be allowed so restaurants can have more flexibility. Sea Dog is using outdoor seating on its decks overlooking the Exeter River, but it will be difficult to rely strictly on indoor dining given the space limitations.
“You can only separate them so much for your staff without doing major construction,” Marquis said.
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