Eased restaurant restrictions seem likely for New Hampshire’s next reopening phase

But industry bristles at continued social distancing requirements
Dj Bettencourt

D.J. Bettencourt, the governor’s point man on the reopening task force said foresees lifting restrictions on business by the first week of July.

Restaurants throughout New Hampshire will be able to open up to 100% of capacity in the next reopening phase, if they can separate tables by six feet, the Governor’ Economic Re-opening Task Force voted Monday.

But the panel also agreed to pass on a request to the Division of Public Health and Gov. Chris Sununu – who ultimately will make the decision – to allow restaurants to substitute some kind of physical barrier when social distancing is not economically feasible.

“The economics of social distancing doesn’t make sense for our industry,” said Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, who said that the restaurants are “bleeding,” even in the North Country, where 100% capacity is already allowed. “Better than half of them are struggling and need more tables and more turns,” said Somers.

Restaurants opened up for indoor dining on June 15, completing its first reopening phase. But the task force is already looking ahead to phase 2. Last week it issued such guidelines for retailers, and on Monday passed them for childcare facilities.

The second phase may be the last phase, said DJ Bettencourt, the governor’s point man on the task force.

“The next step is to lift all restrictions. I foresee wrapping up first week of July,” he said. “Allowing folks (on the task force) to get back to their day job, so to speak,” though they may be called back as needed

Some of those folks were not so ready go away. Rep. Bill Marsh, R-Wolfeboro, a task force member, noted that if the virus spikes again, necessitating a reopening roll back, the task force would be needed to “be more selective than to just ratchet down everything.” Though he was amenable to await the call of the chair.

But Rep. Jeffrey Salloway, D-Lee, said that instead of awaiting such a call, “we need to be more proactive to prevent a second wave coming to new Hampshire.

‘Very firm’ on distancing

For now, the task force is still discussing the second phase of reopening, which consolidates the myriad lengthy guidelines of the first phase into much shorter guidelines for related industries.

For instance, the aforementioned phase 2 restaurant guidance is part of a broader document that also includes hotels and events facilities.

For restaurants, it would lift the current 50% capacity requirements for eateries in Hillsborough, Rockingham, Merrimack and Strafford counties and it would allow 10 people at a table, compared to the current six-person limit.

But public health officials are “very firm” on the social distancing recommendations, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health.

“We are looking at the states to the south and west and seeing a dramatic increase, she said. “Part of the increase is due to more relaxed rules.”

So the phase 2 guidance will require that tables and patrons at a bar who are not part of the same household must still be six feet apart. The guidance also doesn’t allow standing at bars, but it might be allowed for viewing sporting events as long as participants keep their distance.

At a hearing last week, restaurant owners complained that many bars and restaurants can’t operate at 100% capacity with those social distancing rules, even though outdoor dining is still allowed, since they simply didn’t have enough space – either inside or outside – to spread out.

Also last week, Somers asked health officials to consider that the ventilation in restaurants should allow for some slack for the social distancing rules. He repeated that request Monday, but this time offered another alternative.

“I would not be opposed to have some barriers in place of the six feet,” he said.

Bettencourt said he would raise that alternative with the governor, and Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs and a task force member, asked what he had in mind.

Somers offered that some restaurants in other states have tried curtains or old wooden doors. Restaurants can do this creatively, he said, but they need specifics like “so many inches above the head,” he said. “We need to know the rules of the road.”

The phase 2 guidance for accommodations also lifted the 50% restrictions on hotels with over 20 rooms that are accessed from indoors and the requirement that those from out-of-state quarantine for 14 days before coming to New Hampshire. Weddings could also be at 100% capacity, though “congregating should be minimized” and dancers should be distanced by six feet except for members of the same household.

The guidance doesn’t specify a date for implementation, though it does indicate that phase 2 should begin in July. Marsh urged that it go into effect June 26, but Somers said he would be happy if it happened before July 4 weekend.

“That’s when the rubber hits the road” for New Hampshire’s tourism industry, Somers said.

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