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N.H. Restaurants Seek Solutions As Cold Weather Approaches, Potentially Ending Outdoor Dining

The Saalt/Libby's Bistro

The restaurant industry is preparing for a tough winter season as dining begins to move back inside.

In Portsmouth, at least six restaurants have reported positive cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks as cases and hospitalizations across the state continue to rise, many connected to small gatherings. City officials recently extended their support for outdoor dining through the end of November, in an attempt to reduce community spread within restaurants.

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But according to Valerie Rochon, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, come December, not all businesses may be able to safely serve customers indoors. And protective equipment can set them back thousands of dollars.

"They don't have a lot of funds to buy a lot of Plexiglas,” Rochon said. “So if they are on the fence, they might not choose to open up indoors. They might choose to do takeout instead."

Rochon said the city is working to find solutions for those businesses, like city financial assistance or more 15-minute parking spots for those offering takeout, and she's optimistic that they'll push through the winter.

"I think we are not going to be without some businesses closing, but I think right now we're looking at it really positively that we'll be able to keep a lot of our businesses from closing," she said.

In Franklin, Vulgar Brewing Company was able to greatly expand their outdoor dining capacity to a nearby park this summer. But inside, owner Damon Lewis said the building can only safely hold 24 people, as opposed to their regular 60.

Although the state recently allowed restaurants to operate at full capacity so long as social distancing guidelines are met, some restaurants have opted for clear plastic barriers between tables in order to fill more tables. But Lewis said he and his staff don’t feel that’s the best way to keep everyone safe and are beginning to shift more toward takeout for the winter.

“We just don’t feel safe enough that we can keep everybody apart that way,” he said, “When we fully shut the patio down, I’m not sure if there will be enough business to keep the inside open.”

At the Saalt Pub and Libby’s Bistro in Gorham, owner Liz Jackson says she’s worried about the winter and what dining in could mean for the safety of customers and staff.

“We have no interest until this is over in at all trying to go back to capacity. We’re just not comfortable with that,” she said.

But she’s also looking forward to reinventing the wheel with what can be offered at her restaurant this winter, which means more investments to keep people coming. Customers have been more willing than ever to adapt and dine outside this year, even as nights grew colder, Jackson said.

“In the past if your heat wasn’t at 72 degrees in the restaurant, people were complaining about the cold. Now, outside it's 42 degrees and they’re showing up with their hats and their down sweaters, and we had blankets for them.”

After her restaurant takes a one-month break in November – an annual hiatus at the Saalt – Jackson envisions a new experience outside that may include food and drinks alongside a fire, but not necessarily serviced dining, with minimal seating inside. She’s also excited to collaborate on occasional dinner events with a new café opening next door.

“It goes so against my instincts to not be snugged in and warm when we’re eating dinner. But it’s an amazing thing to watch how people felt good about eating outside they didn’t complain,” she said. “We could keep reinventing ourselves.”

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