As NH slowly emerges from shutdown, not every business and not all customers are ready to follow

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New Hampshire and the nation have never had the economy shut down so suddenly. And they have never tried to reopen it once it did, with the threat of a continuing pandemic dangling over each move.

The pressure to open from cash strapped-businesses and cabin fevered consumers is immense, despite the federal government flooding the state with billions of dollars in economic aid and despite a still-rising coronavirus caseload and death toll – a death toll that, in mid-May, only two months after the shutdown – stood at nearly half the number of opioid-related fatalities recorded in all of 2019.

Of course, testing has risen dramatically, and the percentage of those testing positive has declined from 10 percent at the beginning of May to under 5 percent by the middle of the month.

Yet, even as New Hampshire took its first steps – “not big steps but small steps” as Gov. Chris Sununu put it – in allowing some businesses to open their doors, not every business is ready to, and not many customers are running through them, even with their masks on.

“We are really bipolar on this reopening,” said economist Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research. “We are dying to get out, but afraid to get sick.”

After all, the very order to reopen the economy is called Stay At Home 2.0. How well will business do if everyone actually did stay at home?

The New Hampshire economy started tentatively rebooting during the first week of May, when Sununu’s reopening order began with input from his hand-picked Economic Reopening Task Force.

But that first week was more about placing restrictions on what was already open – essential businesses like manufacturing – or on what would have opened anyway, like campgrounds and state parks. The order did lift restrictions on “time-sensitive” healthcare services.

Cautious hospitals

But most hospitals geared up cautiously, not just because of concerns of spreading the virus but of insuring they had the resources to able to treat it.

This was especially true of Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, which as of May 13 was treating 30 confirmed coronavirus patients – the most in the state – 47 if you count those with symptoms who were awaiting testing. It couldn’t open an intensive care unit because of this, which is why it can only “turn the dimmer switch ever so slightly each week,” said Alex Walker, CMC’s executive vice president and chief executive operating officer.

The number of elective procedures “fell off the cliff” after March 5, he said, and the hospital is now losing about $20 million. It’s true there has been a lot of federal aid announced for the hospitals, but so far, CMC has only seen about $8.5 million of that “without strings attached,” not even covering March’s losses. The hospital didn’t qualify for federal hot spot funding reserved for urban centers like New York and Boston, nor rural hospital funding because it was too urban, he said.

“We don’t get a nickel,” he said. “How crazy is that?”

Slowly bringing back some elective procedures “will certainly help offset some of the losses we were sustaining [but] our financial situation is very, very concerning.”

Medical offices had a similar experience. Concord Eye Center, for instance, lost about half of its business and had to furlough half the staff when it stopped offering routine care, but it is now up to 75 percent of business, bringing back services like cataract surgery.

Thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, it will be able to keep going until June, “but we really need to see real money hit the books in July,” said Concord Eye President Dr. Eliot Foley.

‘Living in different times’

The week of May 11 was the first real week of reopening, with limited OKs given to retail stores, hair solons, drive-in theaters and golf courses.

Though the golf course parking lots were full, many cars were not empty. Customers had to sit in them to wait for their tee time, now stretched to 12 minutes between times from the previous eight.

“It was so slow motion,” complained Peter Harrity, owner of the Candia Woods Golf Links and The Oaks Golf Course. “We are busy as we can be at 68 percent.”

Can the courses make money under these conditions?

“Of course not,” he said. “We are underwater every day.

Hairdressers are another mixed bag.

Pam New, president of the New Hampshire Cosmetology Association, representing the 30,000 state licensees, had argued that salons should be reopened, “because people are getting desperate. Everybody is looking a bit shaggy.” And while reopening guidelines might be strict, “that’s how it works, we are living in different times.”

When the guidelines came out, a number of salons balked, either saying that it was still unsafe or they couldn’t make money on services limited to haircuts and single color touchups

But the demand was there. David Bellman, owner of Bellman’s Jewelry in Manchester, had opened up a penthouse barbershop upstairs from his Elm Street storefront a few years back, and when it announced reopening, “you could watch the reservations fill up online, booked solid all week. They were going to be crazy busy.”

Bellman wished they were lining up outside his store as well, but pent-up demand for wedding rings isn’t as great. Bellman never fully closed. Since the store buys jewelry as well as sells it, it has a pawnbroker’s licenses, and pawnbrokers are deemed essential, but despite being featured in a Union Leader article over the weekend before reopening, the first day was slow.

‘Some will not shop’

A majority of retail stores did reopen, but a good many have remained closed to inside traffic, still just offering pickup and curbside delivery, said Nancy Kyle, president of the New Hampshire Retail Association. “I think it is hard for retailers, because some will not shop.”

Most of the malls are open. In a letter to the governor, Simon Property Group laid out guidelines for the four malls it operates in the state, promising to control traffic to one person for every 50 square feet of space. But, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, only half of the stores at the Mall at Rockingham Park was opened up during the first week.

“It was a bit of a soft rollout,” reported Eric Slaughenhaupt, owner of Seasonal Specialty Stores, a pool supplies and outdoor furniture store in Amherst. It seemed that it had more business online, from people getting their pools ready for their staycation, he said. Before they could come into the store to shop, “the phones were berserk,” he said.

But the Toadstool Bookshops in Peterborough, Keene and Nashua are going to stick with mail order and online sales for now.

“We have thousands of books and we don’t know who is touching what,” said owner Willard Williams. If you are concerned about the person next to you, browsing isn’t as enjoyable as what it should be.”

Restaurants’ concerns

If the pandemic has hit retail hard, it has hit the hospitality industry harder.

Restaurants have been able to offer takeout and delivery and curbside pickup, but the industry has still lost 40,000 jobs since the middle of March. It also lost $830 million in sales, said Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.

Restaurants were allowed to open for outdoor dining on May 18, but Somers estimated that only 40 percent of eateries would be able to take advantage of it.

“A lot of them don’t have access to outside seating, and for others it doesn’t make economic sense” said Somers.

But many will give it a try. 900 Degrees in Manchester planned to use its existing covered deck as well as set up 10 more tables in the parking lot.

“This is all new to us,” said Priscilla Lane-Rondeau, adding that sales fell 80 percent when the restaurant was limited to takeout and curbside pickup. Still, with the help of a PPP loan, she was able to keep on 14 staff members. Now she’ll be able to call in another 10, she said.

“I think they will come,” she said of customers. “There are people with high risk who will have to take care of themselves, but for many people, they are ready. They are ready.”

Great NH Restaurants plans to double outdoor seating at its 10 T-Bones, CJ’s, Cactus Jack’s and The Copper Door restaurants. Theoretically, that would mean almost 75 percent of the capacity of the chain’s indoor dining seating, but in reality, “There is no playbook,” said owner Tom Boucher. “We are making up the rules as we go. Tents in the parking lot? There is nothing we can compare this to.”

The tables – spaced seven feet apart and 14 feet on the aisles – will seat six, but many won’t be full. And, tents or no, Boucher said he is not going to require his wait staff to work in the pouring rain. Thus the decision to call staff will change day to day depending on “sophisticated weather apps,” he said.

The good news is that almost all of his workers are willing to come back, despite the option of generous unemployment benefits.

“They are missing the work. Hopefully, the guests will be able to see the smile behind those masks in their eyes,” he said.

His restaurants have been losing about $100,000 a week with takeout and delivery only, he said. With outdoor-only dining, he added, “we are still going to lose money, but I have no idea how much. That is the scariest part of this.”

Indeed, even as opening day approached, many restaurants in New Hampshire were still obtaining permits from municipalities to expand their outdoor seating. Some. like Concord, were considering closing Main Street, but hadn’t decided by opening day. Manchester allowed restaurants to set up tables in front of neighboring stores, with permission of the neighbors.

“We haven’t gotten approval for anyone yet,” said Richard French, CEO of the Works Café, which has locations in Concord, Keene and Durham, at a Business and Industry Association webinar presented on the Friday before the reopening.

Meanwhile, Somers is already asking the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force to allow indoor seating for on June 1.

‘As social distancing allows’

The task force has recommended that lodging facilities be allowed to open on May 22, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. The task force recommended restricting indoor room access to no more than 50 percent occupancy, but there would be no limits on hotels with outdoor access, or inns with 10 or fewer rooms.

The task also recommended guidelines, but no date, to reopen gyms, many which are on the “verge of bankruptcy,” according to Michael Benton, CEO of Genavix Corp., a national chain as well as the owner of three fitness centers in New Hampshire in a presentation before the task force.

The task force is recommending allowing them to operate at half occupancy, or “as social distancing allows.” It also passed guidelines to allow many outdoor attractions, audience-free arts performances, massage therapists and equestrian facilities, but they were awaiting the governor’s go-ahead.

Meanwhile, industry after industry continues to make their case before the reopening task force.

“I drove by the Amherst Walmart and there were at least 1,000 cars in the parking lot. With respect, what would be different about allowing me to host an event with proper safety guidelines in place?” asked Amy LaBelle of LaBelle Winery in Amherst, speaking on behalf of 300 event venues in the state.

Event facilities should be able to open under the same conditions as outdoor restaurants, she said. “There is no difference between outdoor restaurant dining and outdoor event dining,” she said. Why take away a bride’s ability to enjoy her wedding day entirely?”

Similarly, Larry Allen, owner of NH Tattoo in Merrimack, asked that the 600 body artists in New Hampshire be allowed to once again offer their services. They serve far fewer people than hair salons, more like 10 a week rather than dozens a day.  True, they are dealing with bodily fluids, but Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, he said.

Besides, as a result of the shutdown of legitimate businesses, some people are going underground, attending do-it-yourself “kitchen parties” with the possibility of infection or the wrong type of ink, “that if you put into your body, bad things can happen.”

The tattoo industry was shut down just as it was coming out of its slow season but, as independent contractors, few could get access to government aid.

“Most of us are worried about closing our doors permanently. We are running out of money. We had to dip into our savings. Microbusinesses like ours are desperate. It is important for us to return to work as soon as possible because we are in dire need,” he pleaded.

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About this Author

Bob Sanders

ReporterNew Hampshire Business Review