Restaurant owners: COVID-19 liquor inspectors are a real buzzkill

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Restaurant managers representing eateries around Manchester, including The Shaskeen on Elm Street, are asking for adjustments to the current seating restrictions. Courtesy Photo


CONCORD, NH – There’s a lot of heartburn in the restaurant industry in New Hampshire right now, the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force was told on Thursday.

While New Hampshire continues to have a comparatively low percentage of positive cases of COVID-19 – at or under 1 percent – owners and managers of restaurants like the T-Bones, Cactus Jacks, Manchester’s Boards and Brews and the Shaskeen and others asked the state to lift capacity restrictions now at 50 percent in the state’s four southern and eastern counties and ease other restrictions that are “killing” their businesses.

They also expressed worries about threats to shut them down during the pandemic from liquor inspectors out looking for violations.

Their staff are unhappily “policing the public” they serve and said they face the real threat of losing their liquor license if they violate the new rules due to the pandemic.

“You can hear the desperation in their voices today,” said state Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, a member of the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force, who suggested allowing restaurants in Hillsborough, Strafford, Rockingham, and Merrimack counties to open up to 75 percent capacity.

New Hampshire may be doing well now but it has expectations that things could change as students go back to school, universities reopen and the state allows large gatherings from out-of-state visitors for Bike Week, Labor Day, and fall foliage.

During its weekly virtual public meeting, the task force heard mostly from restaurants complaining about the current guidance limits.

Gov. Chris Sununu will hear their pleas, assured chairman D.J. Bettencourt, Sununu’s policy director. And he said there may be some modifications coming soon.

Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton.

Some members of the task force, particularly Republican state Sen. Bob Giuda of Warren and state Rep. Tim Lang of Sanbornton, pressed state health officials to give them a metric for opening up and relaxing some of the restrictions.

The state is not looking at any specific metric but a collection of data to determine when to lift restrictions on everything from beaches to bars due to COVID-19, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health.

This is a “multi-factorial approach” to easing restrictions or tightening them, the task force was told.

State Rep. Jeffrey Salloway suggested that the state look at the metric of the number of new cases as a percentage of the whole and if it stays at 1 percent or less for the next three weeks, “we can open up carefully.”

Currently, that rate is .94 percent. State Rep. Bill Marsh agreed.

Both acknowledged that colleges and schools reopening and Bike Week data would need to be analyzed but that something might be able to occur in the next three weeks if the number holds steady at or below 1 percent.

Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, called it a ” good discussion.”

“When we started all this, the intent was to bend the curve and we have more than done that,” he said of COVID-19 cases in the state. “We accomplished that mission. If that is no longer the mission I would be interested to know what the mission is now.”

Somers said we have “survived” the summer tourism season and have not seen any spikes in cases. He suggested a meeting with Sununu and health officials on relaxing some of the guidelines on capacity.

A tent with walls, he said, may be worse for the spread of COVID-19 than an indoor wall with air circulation.

Changes Criticized

David Creer, director of public policy for the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, told the task force that the August updated universal state guidelines are also causing some businesses to have problems with restrictions on those who travel for business.

Coming back into the state, they must quarantine for 14 days keeping them away from the office for travel outside of New England. “It is a large problem,” Creer said.

He asked if exceptions could be made for such business travel noting that work travel differs from a family vacation in terms of social distancing, PPE, and the like.

Also of concern are those who may present one or more of the COVID-19 symptoms requiring a 10-day quarantine which can be explained.

Creer said a scratchy throat could also be easily explained as allergies. He suggested the guidance could be altered to “unexplained symptoms.”

He also said that currently, there is no option to test out of quarantine, even if there is a negative PCR test result.

The state’s current COVID-19 guidelines, including universal guidelines for all businesses and industry-specific guidelines, can be found here https://www.covidguidance.nh.gov/

Mount Washington Summit

Wayne Presby, owner of the Cog Railway, asked the task force for an increase from 50 to 60 percent capacity for his excursion train to the summit of Mount Washington.

Presby said he has been prevented from doing that because of a lack of shelter on the summit of Mount Washington in bad weather for his passengers who spend some time at the top.

Issues of capacity concerns are not exclusive to the Cog, said Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs. He noted cruise boats and others are expressing concern as well about the limitations.

He said that they might be able to move forward with changes in guidance on capacity but the limitations at the top of Mount Washington are unique.

Phil Bryce, director of Parks and Recreation, which operates the state park at the summit, and is also a member of the task force, said it needs to be shared by a number of entities and a capacity indoors is now at 70 for a 300-person capacity building.

Hikers need to be fully prepared to be out in the open, Bryce said.

“The question is whether people can socially distance in those shelters where people congregate near the entryway,” Bryce said.

He said his state park workers “take a tremendous amount of abuse from visitors…who want to get into the facility. He said he is fortunate they have thick skins right now, but at some point, it could get to be too much, and the building could be closed to the public.

The state is working with the Mount Washington Observatory on museum ventilation to allow it to open up and that would allow capacity limits to expand, he said.

Hospital Guidelines

The state’s reopening task force has not been involved in the internal operational procedures at hospitals that allow the public or prohibit them to enter as visitors. The hospital industry passed along its guidance to the task force Thursday which was agreed upon at the beginning of the pandemic.

Recently, hospitals have allowed one person to be designated as a patient visitor.

Universities Update

The return of students to various campuses across the state is on the minds of many as are efforts to keep COVID-19 away from the state. The task force expects to be briefed next week on the University Systems of New Hampshire open up plans.

Bike Week

Starting this weekend, lots of motorcycles will be in the state from all over New England and beyond as the 97th Motorcycle Week is held with its epicenter in the Weirs Beach section of Laconia. This year, there will be no vendors and big beer tents and no way to know how many people will attend.

Pre-event outreach is occurring now for the hospitality and restaurant industry which cater to riders starting this weekend and through Aug. 30, said Bettencourt.

He said there is a divide in the public between those who feel that Bike Week events should be canceled and those who believe the state guidance is too restrictive.

“While it is impossible to make everybody happy,” Bettencourt said, the plan does everything reasonably possible to protect the public and allow for the events to go forward safely.

He said no additional restrictions have been put on restaurants for Bike Week.

“What the governor has said is that the state is going to engage in education and outreach,” and make sure facilities are in compliance.

For example, Sununu has said you can’t just stand at the bar anymore to wait for a drink, you have to have a seat.

Bettencourt said those businesses that “knowingly and recklessly” violate the guidance will be held accountable but the effort ahead of time is to educate.

“The state is not going to be engaged in ‘gotcha’ games with restaurants,” Bettencourt said. “What they have asked for is a good faith effort” to follow the guidance.

Ocean Boulevard to Reopen

Hampton traffic will return to normal after Labor Day with Ocean Boulevard opening up to traffic.

Bettencourt said the deadlines to open up Ocean Boulevard were set when the plan was first implemented to close it to allow for more pedestrian space during the summer. He thanked all for working to making it as successful a summer at Hampton Beach that could be safely allowed during a pandemic.

John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses hope that after Labor Day weekend the state will allow for an easing in traffic restrictions from 50 percent to 75.

Voting

Election day regulations have prompted calls and concerns and the task force has no role about protocols at the polls, Bettencourt said. The Secretary of State https://sos.nh.gov/ and the Attorney General’s office https://www.doj.nh.gov/election-law/complaints.htm are the places to go with that concern, he said.

Ice Rinks

The state has resolved an issue with an Exeter ice rink through education not courts or fines, Bettencourt told members of the task force. There is now no reason to revisit the guidelines for those businesses as Sununu had suggested at a press conference last week, he said.

Bettencourt noted that the Attorney General’s Office addressed the matter and came to terms with education. An official statement by the Rinks of Exeter about the incident is here. http://www.therinksatexeter.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/OFFICIAL-STATEMENT-FROM-THE-RINKS-AT-EXETER.pdf