Restaurants try to navigate back to ‘normal’

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Heidi Liolios, owner of Chelby’s Pizza, is making it work thanks to her regulars. Photo/Stacy Harrison

MANCHESTER, NH – When Governor Chris Sununu allowed the mask mandate in New Hampshire to expire on April 16—a decision that has drawn its share of criticism—he put in place the next step in returning to a nebulous “normal,” which will occur when all state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted on May 7.

The restrictions will be replaced by “universal best practices,” which will offer suggestions for New Hampshire businesses while giving them the option to establish their own guidelines for customers and employees.

In an interview with NHPR, Sununu cited the fact that 97 percent of New Hampshire adults who wanted to be vaccinated will have had the opportunity to receive their first shot by May 7.

Sununu said businesses and individuals should now make their own choices regarding how to approach the pandemic restrictions that—after a year of attrition—has left many people and businesses wary and beleaguered.

For restaurant owners, who have been hit particularly hard since the shutdown in March 2020, these decisions depend on the location of the restaurant.

Lifting the state-wide restrictions means restaurants are free to return to full-capacity and customers can once again stand at bars without Plexiglas barriers, and masks will no longer be required.

Still, some businesses are still bound by the policies set by their local health departments.

For Chelby’s Pizza on Mammoth Road, owner Heidi Liolios said the decision is dictated by the city’s department of health who are requiring that Manchester bars and restaurants continue with mask mandates for staff and customers, as well as maintaining social-distancing within the establishments.

Liolios said she doesn’t necessarily disagree, despite the necessary sanitation supplies adding considerably to their overhead.

“I don’t want to put my employees or customers at risk,” she said. “We need to follow the CDC’s rules. It doesn’t matter what [the governor] says about May 7. If the CDC says no, it’s no.”

Meanwhile, for Madear’s Southern Eatery and Bakery in Pembroke—formerly located on Hanover Street in Manchester—Chef Kyle Davis said the restaurant’s interior is “naturally socially-distanced” and the decision on masking-up should be left to the customer.

“We will not mandate that people wear masks, but we’re also not going to go on social media telling people what they can and can’t do,” Davis said. “Still, 99 percent of customers wear masks, and all of our staff will.”

Robb Curry co-owns Madear’s, a restaurant coming to Pembroke. Photo/Geoff Forester, Monitor staff

Unlike Manchester, the town of Pembroke adheres to the state policies without local oversight.

Meanwhile, as restaurants eye an eventual return to full capacity, many say they are now struggling to find staff.

Liolios, who has relied on a younger workforce in the past, is now experiencing a dearth of applicants.

“I don’t see kids looking for jobs,” she said. “Many kids are just handed everything they need. You don’t see these kids washing dishes for a summer anymore. I don’t see it anywhere.”

Louisiana native and Madear’s head chef, Robb Curry concurs.

“Finding reliable staff has been challenging,” he said. “We’ve had more people come in for interviews and get offered a position then not show up for work. It’s a part of the generation. If they look outside and it’s raining, they say, ‘It’s raining. I’m not going to work.’ They lack that work ethic.”

While both small businesses are offering livable wages, neither are offering incentives to draw employees and have trouble competing with the corporate restaurants and their bottomless pockets.

“I’m wondering how long I can afford my employees,” said Liolios. “No matter what, they need to get paid, and I’m still only operating at 50 percent. And other restaurants are recruiting people.”

And as New Hampshire and the nation seek new definitions of normalcy, a sense of wistful pre-COVID-19 nostalgia belies these efforts.

Liolios has noticed that people are now less tolerant. “Employees and customers are on edge all of the time,” she said. “I miss the laid-back atmosphere.”

Curry, who stressed the slow-flow of Southern dining at Madear’s where customers tend to stay longer, again, agreed.

“I wish we could get back the casual gathering where strangers can have conversations and not have to worry about social-distancing,” he said. “That socialization is gone.”