Outdoor dining gets ready to resume across New Hampshire

Communities across state have approved rules in bid to aid hard-hit restaurants
Nuevo Vallarta Covid

A masked server delivering lunch to a table at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester last spring. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

The number of seats, tables and umbrellas outdoors will begin to rise with the temperature as many New Hampshire cities and towns again have approved allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining in 2021.

Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Derry, Portsmouth, Dover, Salem, Merrimack, Keene, Bedford, Exeter, Hanover, Lebanon, North Conway, Rochester and Peterborough are among the communities that have already approved outdoor dining for 2021.

Many restaurants said outdoor dining helped mitigate the effects of the pandemic last year.

“The expanded seating helped offset lost revenue in the warmer months, and the expanded outdoor seating was key for us,” wrote the owners of Café la Reine in testimony to the city of Manchester.

The city’s aldermen unanimously approved outdoor seating starting March 15. The ordinance estimates that approximately 120 parking spaces will be blocked for seating and will not impact any handicapped spaces.

Restaurants must submit an application to their town or city to move onto public spaces like sidewalks or roads. The typical application requires restaurants to fill out a questionnaire, a sketch and a photo of the desired outdoor seating setup, and $1 million in liability insurance and indemnification to the town or city.

Some communities, like Merrimack, approved outdoor dining for 2020, but never allowed restaurants to expand onto public spaces.

“All of our outdoor dining approvals were within the private property that the businesses and restaurants were already located on,” said Tim Thomas, community development director in Merrimack.

Merrimack and Salem will offer outdoor dining until the governor’s emergency order expires. Some local lawmakers are trying to extend the emergency order allowing for outdoor dining through December 2023.

Last May 1, Gov. Chris Sununu announced his Stay-at-Home Order 2.0, which provides guidance for pandemic operations for businesses throughout the state.

The order says “restaurants are permitted to expand outside wherever an outdoor area can be set up safely, such as parking spaces close to entrances, sidewalks, existing patios, lawn areas.” In addition, it specifies that no more than six customers are allowed at a table, and all tables need to be spaced at least six feet apart.

‘Hit terrifically hard’

Extension of the order is part of an amendment to Senate Bill 155 that Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, is sponsoring. SB 155 as a whole codifies provisions included in the governor’s emergency orders responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This industry has been hit terrifically hard and the proposed amendment will help give stability to many restaurants throughout the state,” said Darren Winham, economic development director in Exeter and an author of the amendment.

The amendment was passed unanimously by the committee, with many senators saying they received a lot of support for the amendment from constituents.

“I received so many emails from constituents. I love the amendment,” said Sen. Denise Ricciardi, R-Bedford.

In Nashua, which has approved outdoor dining from March 15 to Nov. 15, businesses must obtain written approval from the town’s public works and fire departments and environmental health office. “We understand a one-size-fits all approach is not going to work for all applications and will do our best to work cooperatively with you while always adhering to the latest guidance and recommendations from public health professionals,” reads a statement on the city’s website.

A map on that site shows 14 expanded outdoor dining spots on Main Street.

Portsmouth reinstated its emergency dining model from 2020, allowing restaurants to move outside as early as March 1. Some cities and towns decided to amend plans before reissuing them for 2021.

Rochester amended its outdoor dining ordinance requiring permits for live entertainment and an application deadline of March 1. The new ordinance also changed requirements for rubber stoppers and overhead canopies.

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