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As COVID Restrictions Lift On N.H. Businesses, Many Have No Big Plans To Change

photo of sign saying please wear a mask
Daniel Barrick / NHPR

For the past year, businesses and organizations in the state have been required to follow a series of regulations aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.      

As of Friday at 11:59pm, those restrictions are being lifted, with a single voluntary set of guidelines coming into effect.

This new flexibility, though, doesn’t mean customers and employees should expect an overnight shift.

“It’s not going to be like a light switch. It is going to be more like a dimmer switch,” says Jay McSharry, a restaurateur on the Seacoast. “Things are slowly going to open up, or get brighter.”

Related story: As Summer Nears, High Hopes - And Caution - For N.H.'s Tourism Industry

Starting this weekend, restaurants no longer need to space tables at least six feet apart, or use partitions to separate customers, but McSharry says he has no immediate plans to change the layouts at his twelve restaurants. 

“We are just keeping everything the same,” he says. “We are still going to follow the basic guidelines, partly because it is just a good practice for the time being.”

For the most part, his restaurants are starting to see business pick up as more vaccinated diners head out for meals. And with extra outdoor seating, McSharry says they are balancing any lost revenues from fewer indoor tables.

Some performing arts halls and concert venues are also not rushing to pack their spaces. 

“Shows that we have already booked, and we let people know they will be socially distanced shows, will remain socially distanced,” says Monte Bohanan, communications and community engagement director at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.

Under the expiring state rules, venues have been limited to either 50-percent capacity or six feet of spacing between unrelated groups. At The Music Hall, that’s meant seating just around 200 people inside their 900-seat theater. 

Bohanan says they may ease those restrictions this summer, with the hope of having headline acts filling the hall by this fall.

“In order to bring those major acts, we have to be ready for 100-percent capacity, and the audience needs to be ready for that as well,” he says.

Part of the slow unrolling of restrictions is the need to keep both customers and employees comfortable. 

“I had one person say to me that there are two places he felt safe: at work and at home,” says Val Zanchuk, CEO of Graphicast, a manufacturing company in Jaffrey. 

Zanchuk says even with the universal restrictions lifting, Graphicast is keeping in place daily cleaning of the factory, and will continue pool testing employees for the virus every 10 days.

The only change Graphicast is making is a lifting of its own mask requirement. 

“People griped about wearing the masks,” he says. “Especially in a factory. It can get hot and...there was griping.” 

At Glow Hair Braiding in Manchester, owner Sarah Dak says she and her employees are happy to keep wearing masks. They’ll also continue to limit capacity, and require reservations, for now.

“Just time,” says Dak. “Time will get me there, and hopefully everybody gets vaccinated, and we can start taking walk-ins and have more clients in here.”

For office workers who have been working remotely, the lifting of restrictions also won’t likely mark a seismic shift, though all state employees are expected to return to in-person work on Monday.

Barry Needleman is managing director at the law firm McLane Middleton, where he says “we are going to continue doing exactly what we’ve been doing all along.”

That includes daily temperature checks on anyone who does enter the office, but no requirement that attorneys and support staff return to work. He says it will likely still be months before employees are back in-person. 

“It is hard to make that mental shift after being in your bunker mentality for so long to one where you can start to relax a little bit more,” he says.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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