Despite reduction in COVID-19 restrictions in NH, some restaurants stick to curbside

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At Johnny Boston’s International in Newmarket, indoor dining was available for two weeks before John Kiper, the owner there, decided to reverse that decision. Courtesy Photo

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A new surge of COVID-19 infections in southern states has reversed Texas’ and Florida’s statewide reopening plans. New York City announced this week that it would postpone indoor dining indefinitely as infections in other states have been traced to bars and restaurants. New Jersey recently reversed its plan to reopen restaurants for indoor dining.

Although New Hampshire began to allow customers to enjoy dining inside restaurants with social distancing measures June 15, some have decided against it for a variety of reasons, from cost savings to health concerns for customers and staff.

“People are still not wearing masks, people are going to bars, and mingling with tons of other people. I don’t feel comfortable, and my employees don’t feel comfortable with letting people into the store at this point,” said Michelle Lesmerises, owner of Crackskull’s Coffee and Books in Newmarket.

The coffee shop originally planned to open July 1, but plans recently changed when Lesmerises and her staff saw that a second wave of infections had already started in southern states. Crackskull’s will now remain curbside pickup only, with a few open seats outside the shop.

Down the street at Johnny Boston’s International, also in Newmarket, indoor dining was available for two weeks before John Kiper, the owner there, decided to reverse that decision.

“This guy called and said, I haven’t been wearing a mask, do I have to wear a mask?” Kiper said. “And most of the people that were eating inside were not from town. A lot of people were visiting their kids from UNH so there were people visiting from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.”

Kiper also worries about the potential of spread within his 600-foot space via air conditioning. A CDC report in April found that an air conditioner at a restaurant in Guangzhou, China could have propagated respiratory droplets from table to table.

Johnny Boston’s remains outdoor-dining only. Courtesy Photo

But even with outdoor seating and takeout only, Kiper said he’s been able to match June 2019 sales numbers. He thinks that’s a result of mastering online ordering and streamlining the menu. Around 50 percent of sales were also already takeout orders pre-COVID.

“In some ways I would say we are actually surprisingly better off, I’m in a better position than I was before.”

As of July 1, New Hampshire has detected 5,802 COVID-19 infections. Of those, 10 percent have been hospitalized and 77 percent have recovered. Researchers at Harvard’s Global Health Institute have identified New Hampshire, with between one and nine new infections per 100,000 people every day, as a state with potential for community spread.

Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, says eateries around the state are doing their best to comply with state guidelines while remaining in business, but some are experiencing less interest in indoor dining than before the health crisis. Restaurants in Rockingham, Hillsborough, Merrimack and Strafford counties, where capacity is limited to 50 percent, may be experiencing greater difficulty. In northern and western New Hampshire, that rule doesn’t apply so long as tables are distanced six feet apart.

Somers says he hasn’t heard from restaurants across the state who have decided against indoor dining, but some have been experiencing difficulty getting their employees to return to work for a variety of reasons.

Up until recently, there were childcare issues because [employees] didn’t have anywhere they were leaving their dependents,” Somers said. “And then of course, Workers that are actually legitimately concerned about going to work and potentially catching the virus.”

However, Somers’ biggest concern has been the loss in revenue among New Hampshire’s hospitality industry.

“In our industry, we run profit margins between 3 and 5 percent, 6 percent in a good year,” Somers said. I’ve talked to folks in the last couple of days, and they’ve done the math and they’re losing $10,000 a week, some are losing $20,000 a week.”

At Crackskull’s, “we are definitely not seeing normal June sales numbers,” Lesmerises said. “We’ve curbed our hours to minimize payroll costs, and that seems to help a bit.”

Cheddar & Rye in Manchester has a speakeasy vibe. Owner Liu Vane hasn’t yet reopened his three restaurants due to COVID-19. File Photo

We’re already losing money with rent and utilities, but with 50 percent capacity we can’t make the money to support the staff. We can’t,” said Liu Vane, owner of three restaurants in southern New Hampshire.

Vane has been unable to open Cheddar and Rye, a part-sandwich shop, part-whiskey bar in Manchester, the city with the most cumulative COVID-19 infections in New Hampshire. He said his staff don’t yet feel comfortable serving under the current health conditions, but are looking to open later this month.

“Our restaurant in Manchester wants to open by 4th of July, but we’re meeting to discuss that because of the spike going on in the south. We could open up and then all of a sudden have to close again,” Vane said. 

All three of Vane’s restaurants have remained completely closed since March. In addition to Cheddar and Rye, he owns Codex in Nashua, and Chuck’s BARbershop in Concord, both speakeasy-style bars. Besides the fact that the bars don’t have patio seating at all, Vane said the addition of outside seats would defeat the purpose and atmosphere of a speakeasy.

“We do have great food, but people come to our restaurant in Concord and Nashua for the experience. For the experience of jumping back into the 1920s,” he said.

Vane’s projected reopening date is currently August 7. But that will be dependent upon Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision whether or not to approve the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force’s recent recommendation to allow 100 percent occupancy at restaurants. 

“We appreciate that this is a health crisis, but these are unsustainable numbers for the long term,” said Somers, who also sits on the task force.

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