MANCHESTER, NH – Restaurants across New Hampshire have been given the green light to return to full-capacity dining. The announcement by Gov. Chris Sununu Friday came one day after testimony from several restaurant owners who told the governor’s reopening task force that operating at half-capacity would “kill their business.”
During Friday afternoon’s COVID-19 update, Sununu said that in addition to restaurants in the six northern counties where restrictions have previously been lifted, the updated guidance would now apply for all New Hampshire restaurants to reopen at full capacity – as long as they continue to follow mask-wearing and physical distancing guidance, and seat no more than six to a table.
The announcement was met with some confusion and mostly lukewarm reception from local restaurateurs.
Tim Baines, owner of Mint Bistro on Elm Street in Manchester, said while it’s heartening to know that New Hampshire’s case numbers are moving in the right direction, Friday’s announcement by Sununu is confusing at best, and mostly a “nothing burger.”
“It is nice to see New Hampshire trending better than of most of the country in regards to COVID. This announcement by the governor is a step forward but does not change the game for operators of restaurants and bars. With tables and bar stools needing to remain socially distanced, it does very little – and in fact, today’s announcement is already confusing the general public. Many operators are being congratulated on this ‘good news’ but the reality is that the majority find themselves in the same exact boat, a sinking boat,” Baines said. “Basically the news was a nothing burger.”
He said he especially feels for the bars which have more significant hurdles with all of the rules and restrictions.
Joel Soucy, owner of Birch on Elm and Noodz, concurred with Baines. His two restaurants have remained closed since March 16 but he says Noodz is scheduled to reopen Aug. 28, with Birch on Elm to follow a few weeks after.
“The truth is, it provides very little applicable relief, if any at all. Easing capacity restrictions without easing distancing guidelines leaves many restaurants right where we already were. Regardless of your thoughts on the effectiveness of distancing or the dangers the virus poses, this new action feels hollow for small businesses,” Soucy said.
“My normal capacity at Birch is 50, but with distancing guidelines in place, I can only seat about 20 regardless of the 50 percent capacity restriction.”
“We are extremely excited to see this news, with the colder weather around the corner. We hadn’t heard much after 50 percent capacity opened up, so this is welcome news,” Day said. “We are working hard to make things work, and grateful for our supporters but continue to struggle to make ends meet.
He said they hope to introduce some limited bar seating and rearrange their lounge as needed for additional tables as the cooler weather moves in.
Neal Brown, who is a co-owner of the Shaskeen Pub on Elm Street, said that while he appreciates what the governor has to deal with on a statewide level, his reaction to the new guidelines boils down to “thanks for nothing.”
“While I am most delighted for any business that was unable to operate up to now such as wedding venues, for most common businesses like our own, it’s status quo. Since June 15th, when the state decreed that indoor dining was permitted, we at the Shaskeen adhered to the then-current guidelines – 50-percent occupancy, with 6-feet social distancing between customers, in groups no larger than six. We instated a thorough cleaning regime, and have a constant supply of facial masks and sanitizer available for guest usage, at our expense,” Brown says.
Allowing “100 percent capacity” doesn’t change anything for the Shaskeen, says Brown.
“We cannot house more guests and still maintain the required distancing – and if anything, this will only add confusion to an already delicate situation. Explaining to customers these restrictions, and adding that the state does not permit such behaviors, like standing, and that masks are to be worn when not seated, is resulting in an increase of attitude and angry rhetoric from customers toward our staff,” Brown says.
The greatest blow for venues like the Shaskeen that hang their hats on providing outstanding live entertainment is that it’s still prohibited indoors.
“Yes, entertainment is permitted outside, but at the cost of potential table space, and at the mercy of the weather. In the case of The Shaskeen, we are a pub that hosts entertainment, whereas The Rex or Palace Theater are entertainment venues with a bar, and that slight change in licensing permits them to host music and comedy events,” Brown says. “We have a proud tradition of being one of the best venues in the state for such live offerings. It’s a vital part of income generation for many other venues, their staff and the artists.”
Reporter Ryan Lessard contributed to this report