CONWAY — Too quick or not soon enough?
That is the question, as New Hampshire gradually reopens businesses that had to shut down by state decree due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retail stores, hair salons, drive-in theaters and private golf courses were allowed to reopen with restrictions Monday under Gov. Chris Sununu’s “Stay at Home 2.0” order.
Now restaurants will get their turn, too, OK’d for outdoor dining as of May 18, though with restrictions.
In addition to requiring hand sanitizer, social distancing and masks for servers as well as customers (when they enter or leave or get up to use the restroom), restaurants also are limited to seating only diners who have made reservations.
That’s intended to prevent patrons from congregating in waiting areas. Diners are required to remain at least 6 feet apart from diners at another table. No more than six people are allowed at a table.
Bar seating areas will remain closed, and indoor dining is still prohibited (though that could change in nearby Oxford, County, Maine, as it is one of the 12 rural counties on which Gov. Janet Mills has eased restrictions in terms of indoor dining).
Though several local restaurants are taking a wait-and-see attitude in terms of how these next few weeks shake out, others are already gearing up to add outdoor seating.
Terry O’Brien, co-owner and general manager of the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub in Glen (and daughter of late Valley Originals founder Dewey Mark and restaurant co-founder Jean Melczarek), said the crew is at work to open the restaurant’s patio for Monday’s start.
They temporarily closed in March but restarted takeout service this past week and also are going to offer “grill bags” for patrons to take home to cook.
“In addition to our takeout, we’re going to start doing the outdoor dining on our patio Monday,” said O’Brien. “We will lose a little seating out there (due to the social distancing guidelines of 6 feet), but I have bought a new mosquito eater, and we’ve got the bug repellent candles put on tables. We’ve also got heaters under the awnings.”
O’Brien, a former president of the N.H. Lodging and Restaurant Association, said she misses the old days. But they are persevering.
“We are trying seven days a week for now (for both the takeout and the patio); we may end up cutting that back,” said O’Brien.
Others planning to redo their patios and decks for the current “new normal” of outdoor dining include Vito Marcello of Vito Marcello’s Italian Bistro in North Conway, who plans to add a tent to his patio, with crews modifying the existing pergola structure outside the Seavey Street bistro.
He said his restaurant is continuing curbside service and will add outdoor dining next week.
“We’ll do a little. We’re not rushing into anything. We’ll start slow and see where this takes us. First and foremost is the safety of my staff and customers,” said Marcello.
Adam Hooper of Tuckerman’s Tavern at the New England Inn in Intervale has bought a 40-by-20-foot tent and also has a deck to go along with his current takeout service.
“We can use the tent for small functions and weddings,” said Hooper, who said his takeout business has been steady over the past five weeks.
“I’ve reduced my menu prices 20 percent to make it more affordable because I know people are hurting, and our takeout has been working out very well for us,” he said. “People have been tipping generously, and we appreciate it.”
Jen Kovach and Kevin Flynn of Max’s Pub at the Snowvillage Inn in Eaton have recently added picnic tables where customers can sit with their takeout dinners for now and enjoy the view.
In Fryeburg, Maine, Jonathan and Natalie Spak of the Oxford House Inn also are doing takeout but plan to add picnic tables, to be built by Jonathan himself (“I’m doing it as a project,” he said).
In light of Maine’s Gov. Mills’ relaxing of indoor dining guidelines, the Spaks say they also plan to offer limited indoor dining beginning June 2 and continue the outdoor dining at the new picnic tables, allowing patrons to enjoy the view.
“We are moving forward cautiously but with optimism,” said Natalie.
“I must say that hard as this has been, it has not been all bad. It has allowed us the time to do some aspects of the business we have been wanting to do for some time, such as online orders and some retail,” she said.
Sandra Iacozili of 302 West Smokehouse & Tavern, also in Fryeburg, says they were lucky to have a good online sales system set up prior to the closure order.
She said they are now preparing the deck for outdoor dining and beverages and also are expanding the picnic area.
Come Thursday, they will be offering “very limited” indoor and patio dining with full service.
“It will be with call-ahead reservations — that’s not required by law, but it will be helpful as we are trying to eliminate the chaos,” said Iacozili, who is the daughter of owner Bob Wentworth and the Red Parka’s O’Brien.
The Fryeburg House of Pizza also has been busy doing takeout and delivery, and plans on opening for limited indoor dining June 11.
In Brownfield, the Back Burner Restaurant continues to do takeout — call (207) 935-4444 for updates concerning indoor dining.
Back in New Hampshire, planning to offer outdoor dining along with takeout are Rosie’s Restaurant in Tamworth; Cabin Fever in Bartlett, pending town approval; and Bagels Plus and Via Roma in North Conway. Elvio’s Pizzeria continues to offer takeout with customers welcome to enjoy their orders at the picnic tables out front.
Also planning to offer outdoor dining Monday are Merlino’s Family Steakhouse in North Conway and the Wildcat Tavern in Jackson, the latter of which has a large outdoor garden area that owner Stu Dunlop says has ample room not only for dining but also entertainment.
That will be taking place on the deck of a newly rebuilt guesthouse structure known as the Igloo, to feature Jonathan Sarty, Al “the Rev” Shafner and others.
Almost There’s Scott Wigham has an outside area at the popular Albany restaurant/tavern, but with a paving project underway this month, he is going to continue doing takeout for now, which he said has been very successful.
In North Conway, Steve Johnson of Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co. is said to be planning to add a tent.
Up in Jackson, the Shannon Door Pub’s Nora Mulkern Bean said they are also continuing doing takeout and are still on the fence about whether to do outdoor dining.
(For a listing of local restaurants, see the “Support Our Local Restaurants” pages elsewhere in this issue. For more information on local restaurant openings and offerings, see the ads in this issue.)
In Conway, restaurants must get a permit from the town in order to add outdoor dining if they didn’t already offer it.
Conway Parks and Recreation Director John Eastman was tasked with creating the permit. He has posted it to the parks and rec website (conwaynh.myrec.com) and said as of Wednesday, he had received three applications, with another one pending, with probably “15 inquiries so far.”
“Many businesses are telling me they just want to do the planning and get ready for what’s required but that they are not planning to open until June,” said Eastman, noting that the three permits that have been signed are for Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub, Tuckerman Brewing Co. and Merlino’s Family Steakhouse. One from Delaney’s Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurant in North Conway is expected, he said.
There is no cost for the permits, Eastman said.
Many local restaurants are hurting financially and losing employees who can make more money from unemployment.
While most business owners have participated in the federal PPP (payroll protection program) as well as recovery loans offered by the state and federal government, in order to make money, some are selling gift certificates that patrons can use at a later date.
Restaurateurs belonging to the 25-member Valley Originals — the local independent restaurant group that annually donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations — have held weekly online meetings.
Wally Campbell, former co-owner of Fandangle’s Restaurant, which burned in North Conway in 2007 and the group’s executive director, and Dick Delaney of Delaney’s Hole-in-the-Wall and president of the group, both said it has been tough for restaurants to cope with the shutdown and the uncertainies. But they are determined.
Twelve of their 25 members remained open for takeout over the past month, including the Oxford House Inn and 302 West Smokehouse & Tavern; Max’s at the Snowvillage Inn; Almost There; Cafe Noche in Conway; Shalimar of India and Horsefeathers, both of North Conway; Joseph’s Spaghetti Shed and The Cider Co., both in Bartlett; and the Wildcat Tavern, J-Town Deli and Shannon Door Pub, all in Jackson.
Delaney and Campbell said the only silver lining to the shutdown is it occurred in spring, the traditionally slowest time of the year. But with Memorial Day Weekend just around the corner, with a possible easing of hotel restrictions, local restaurateurs are anxious but eager to get back to serving the public.
Delaney said he and fellow restaurateurs are working with U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. First District, and state Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) to try and extend the Payroll Protection Program through August and to extend the payback time period from the current mark of two years to 10 years (as it was originally written).
“Even five (years) would be helpful; two is tough for a lot of us, especially if (the pandemic) lingers or there is a resurgence, and businesses begin to falter,” said Delaney.
Campbell said many are frustrated by what he calls a double standard for how big box stores can have customers inside without personal protection equipment (masks and gloves) while restaurants cannot serve patrons inside their establishments — and like many, he said dining al fresco in the northern part of the state and then with the seasonal arrival of black flies, jokingly referred to as the state bird, has its drawbacks.
“The box stores’ having shoppers not doing social distancing and not allowing indoor dining doesn’t make sense,” said Campbell. “Let me be clear: We don’t want to have it (the virus) get (restarted) and have everyone get sick. But I don’t think the circumstances are different. Right now it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense (to allow box store shopping and not to allow indoor dining) if you had a restaurant open with 50 percent occupancy and masks and gloves and all the other precautions.”
Dunlop echoed his frustration, saying a lot of restaurant owners “are tryng to make decisions in absence of any facts.”
“I don’t know if New Hampshire is being any more cautious than anyone else, but you look at every other state that has reopened and the virus has sparked … We all need and want to open … But I am not sure I would recover personally from the deep sadness and regret I would feel if I opened and one of my staff got sick,” Dunlop said.
Seammus McGrath of McGrath’s Tavern in North Conway said his family has decided not to open for now due to underlying health concerns.
“We are erring on the side of caution,” said McGrath. “There are many restaurants that will open, and there will only be so many people right off the bat, as I don’t think it is going to be gangbusters at the start.”
Others questioned the economics of doing outside service at this time but may do it as the season warms up.
Mike Mallett of the Red Fox Bar & Grille said his business has been doing takeout service since March 17. He said he has a patio that he installed last summer but other than allowing takeout customers to use it, he is holding off for now on outdoor dining.
He will soon be offering pre-cooked frozen meals to go along with the takeout orders.
It’s a delicate balance that he and others throughout the valley are attempting to achieve as the governor’s Stay-at-Home order remains in place through May 31.
Rep. Ed Butler (D-Hart’s Location), who co-owns the Notchland Inn, said: “I am thinking it’s going to be a rough reopening as there is no easy way to create outside dining space.
“I know a lot of restaurants are working hard to make it work. I wish it was it was better, but is is a beginning,” said Butler, who sits on the Governor’s Economic Re-opening Task Force.
State Sen. Bradley said Wednesday the reopening is occurring with close monitoring by state health officials.
“As I have said all along, it is really vital that we get our economy back on track and as quickly as possible but also recognizing the need to protect public health at the same time,” he said.
“There are risks to opening too soon and risks of not opening enough. The reopening task force recognizes the need to allow a phased approach that is as safe as possible,” said Bradley.
In his media update Wednesday about the state’s efforts to slowly reopen up the state’s economy, Gov. Sununu was asked by a reporter about the current outdoor dining restrictions.
As a former operator of seven restaurants when he was running Waterville Valley Ski Area before becoming governor, he said he is well aware of the challenges facing the restaurant and tourism industry and that yes, the state was starting with a “blanket” policy for all of New Hampshire, even though he realizes that the northern part of the state (including Mount Washington Valley) is seasonally colder than the southern parts of the state when it comes to outdoor dining in May.
But, he said, it’s a start. he also said he understands restaurateurs’ plight.
“I get it; I really do,” said Sununu. “Nobody understands and appreciates the economic impact of what’s happening out there more than I do. It’s what keeps me up at night and it’s what has kept me up at night for three straight months now.
“We will get there, but we have to be sensible about how we do it. If we rush just to appease one part of the state or one constituency, then we really put everyone else at risk, we really do,” Sununu said.
Looking ahead, the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force recently recommended that New Hampshire’s lodging industry be allowed to reopen with half-capacity restrictions for hotels for Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, although the ultimate decision rests with the governor.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills announced that lodging establishments there can take reservations starting June 1.