MANCHESTER, NH — When it comes to “reopening New Hampshire,” how soon is too soon? or soon enough?
And what might that look like with the understanding that “social distancing” is the most basic and reliable way to “flatten the curve” of diagnosed COVID-19 cases?
Those are some of the questions on the table around the world, across the country and right here in downtown Manchester. With word last week from New Hampshire’s state hospitality industry that a four-phase plan was in the works to gradually get back to business as early as May 5 in New Hampshire — not business as usual, but as part of our “new normal,” one restaurant owner sees flaws in that plan — and wants to float a proposal that would be a game-changer for the city of Manchester.
It would literally provide an avenue where downtown dining and social distancing can both be realized.
Peter Macone, General Manager of Elm Street’s sister restaurants Republic and Campo Enoteca is circulating an online petition via Change.org calling for city officials to consider a plan that would close Elm Street to vehicular traffic and allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating.
Macone says he has been a longtime proponent of expanding the downtown outdoor dining scene, but taking the idea beyond a “block-party” atmosphere and extending it to the stretch of Elm Street that also has been closed for the annual classic car show and Intown Manchester’s popular Taco Tour came from one of his regulars.
“He knew it was something I talked about when I ran for alderman. In conversation, he said he thought it would be a great opportunity to try it out on a larger scale,” Macone said. The plan proposed by the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force doesn’t take into consideration the limited sidewalk space for most eateries. A simple numbers-crunch would expose the reality that, for most downtown businesses, serving at half capacity or less would be a financial fail. A “few picnic tables” to manage social distancing as described in the plan is not a feasible blueprint for most if not all.
Macone decided to take action. The petition, he says, would be a phase-one conversation starter for the city.
“It’s time to at least bring the discussion to the forefront, but also I want to be clear that this is not a protest. I’m not trying to set a precedent, and I’m not in favor of opening before we’re ready. But when the time comes to go back to work, hopefully this summer, I think it would be a great way to sort of give comfort to those who want to be able to go out and observe social distancing. We all know how great it feels to stroll along Elm Street without traffic, whether it’s for the car show or the taco tour. Every time it happens all you hear people talk about is how awesome it is.”
He is hoping he can get at least 1,500 signatures on his petition, enough to bring it forward to the mayor and board of aldermen, and begin the process of talking about logistics — of which he acknowledges there are many.
“I know it’s not something that can happen with the flip of a switch. There are a lot of logistics involved. While I don’t know all that it would entail if ever there was a time to talk about how it might work, it’s now,” Macone said.
It would certainly benefit downtown restaurants. But Macone also sees it as something that could be a citywide economic boost.
Several who’ve already signed the petition note their reasons, including making downtown Manchester reminiscent of other walkable main drags, like Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, VT, or mirroring Concord’s downtown farmer’s market, which takes over Main Street every Saturday from May through October, including the three-day summer Market Days Festival.
In Manchester, there is a history of successful pockets of summer road closures that blend outdoor dining with entertainment, including Hanover Street and Lowell Street. The challenge is writing a new playbook to extend outdoor dining as a seasonal citywide opportunity.
Macone says it’s time for the city to think beyond whatever the obvious constraints might be and imagine the future in a world where everything has changed sharply, and continually — sometimes from one week to another.
“So yes, there would have to be some investment on behalf of business owners, like patio furniture. I’m shooting for a pipe dream, I know, but I just want a conversation to happen, and whatever we can get we get,” says Macone. Looking at the long-range possibilities is what needs to happen if it’s going to work, he says.
“We can’t buy a bunch of outdoor furniture if it’s just going to happen in August, but if we can make it happen every summer, then yes, I think businesses would be willing to invest in the concept,” Macone said.
The sudden reality of the shutdown in March meant many restaurants, including Republic and Campo, tried to sustain a takeout-only operation. But it was the little unanticipated things — they had no idea how many cardboard boxes it would take to fill orders, for instance — and after the first week or so, they had to make the tough decision to stop.
“Everyone is an eternal optimist in this thing, and many of us thought, sure — we can make this work. But some, like us, fizzled out. I have a lot of respect for those staying open through it all, like Buba Noodle and Firefly,” Macone said.
He also acknowledged the tough losses, like Matbah Mediterranean Cuisine, which announced soon after the stay-home order that they were throwing in the tea towel for good. “It’s a little concerning to think about what’s going to reopen on the other side of this, and not just for restaurants, but I feel really bad for the local suppliers who’ve also been hit hard,” Macone says.
Economically he figures there are many other restaurateurs in the same boat he’s floating in right now. They are OK, and there are cash reserves, money they’re willing to spend when the time is right to get the boat moving full steam ahead.
“We’re not ready to throw a bunch of money at anything just to see how it works,” Macone said.
He says they have been preapproved for enough of a loan at a reasonable enough rate by their bank that they know they will be all right financially, and like many other owners, they are banking on the promise of recouping much of what has been lost through interruption insurance claims.
“We sold as much as we could in the remaining days before we closed, but it was still between $8-12,000 in food loss alone,” Macone says. Terms of the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program adds a series of logistical hoops that many businesses aren’t willing or able to jump through.
They passed on it.
“A lot of staff members are anxious to get back to work but in reality, we don’t know how many would come back. Every single person I know is making more on unemployment than waiting tables, and that includes the front and back of house,” Macone says, referring to the $600 stimulus bonus that is going out. “One of the stipulations of the PPP is that you have to hire everyone back.”
What the pandemic did to the downtown business economy practically overnight, Macone is hoping can be undone with some collaborative thinking and a moment of community solidarity.
And that begins with having a conversation about change.
“With problems and discontent comes change. I’m thinking about how everyone pulled together during WWII, when the country said, ‘You can’t buy this or that because the troops need it, and the whole country said, yeah — we’re behind it; in this, there’s no sacrifice. Everyone has what they need at home, for the most part,” Macone said. “Something like this can happen, but only if the public wants it for the downtown, and demands it, and to that I say, the first step is to have an honest conversation. That’s where we begin.”
To read and considering signing the petition, click here.