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Dining outside is possible at more N.H. restaurants than pre-pandemic. Will it last?

Chris Jense

As the weather gets warmer, outdoor dining season is picking up across New Hampshire, and local businesses are applying for permits to operate on sidewalks or in public parking spaces.

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In Manchester, the deadline to apply for an outdoor dining license is April 29. In other places, the application process is open now and throughout the summer. For some municipalities, the barriers that block off dining areas are going up soon, or have already started to be implemented.

City and town officials say interest in eating outside picked up during the pandemic – because outdoor activity meant less transmission of coronavirus – and in some places outdoor dining has turned into a bigger part of city life.

“Restaurants did it out of necessity during the height of the pandemic, but now it's become really a part of the fabric of the community,” said Margaret Joyce, president of the Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce.

But after two years, some municipalities are more closely scrutinizing their management of the service.

“We still have to manage the public realm and these areas, many of them were built to be streets, not to be dining venues, “ Karen Conard, Portsmouth’s city manager, said. “Where's the happy medium there? We have to help chart that course.”

Conard said there’s still a lot of interest for outdoor dining – the city already had 44 applications this year, almost as many as the 48 they had in 2021. That was a significant increase from the eight businesses using sidewalks and city parking spaces for outdoor dining before the pandemic.

This year, the city is making a few changes, like asking establishments that request permits to prove their neighbors are supportive of outdoor dining, introducing new accessibility requirements and asking restaurants to pay for using spaces that would have generated city revenue, like parking spots.

Some Portsmouth business owners have raised concerns about the impacts of outdoor dining on retail shops.

In Concord, where the city didn’t see much of an increase in interest for outdoor dining, this is the first year they’ll offer expanded outdoor space for restaurants that includes parking spaces not as a COVID-19 relief program, but as part of regular offerings.

In Keene, a few more businesses have started outdoor dining throughout the pandemic. The city waived the $100 annual licensing fee for a few years, but now the fee has returned.

Laconia saw increased interest in restaurants making use of outdoor expansions throughout the pandemic. But this year, as COVID-19 becomes less of a central concern in people’s lives and the worker shortage continues to impact businesses, there’s been a bit less interest in that city.

“Some businesses are challenged with finding enough staff, so to maintain all of their indoor dining and then add additional capacity outside might be stretching their staff a little thin as well,” said city manager Scott Myers.

Myers said the city has taken an individualized approach to regulating outdoor dining, ensuring restaurants have the right safety precautions in place and that they are leaving enough parking spaces for the rest of the neighborhood.

Laconia hasn’t started charging a fee for outdoor dining, but Myers said the city may make the process a little more formal, and there could be a small administrative fee in the future.

In Nashua, the pandemic has made outdoor dining a bigger part of city life, said director of economic development Tim Cummings.

“The restaurant industry and food establishments have, I think, embraced this new type of dining here in New England,” Cummings said. “It's become a bigger and bigger part of their business plan.”

The city is in the process of expanding outdoor dining, giving restaurants a larger space to have more tables. That’s slated to start by early June.

“It creates a more vibrant downtown corridor. It's definitely a place where people feel the energy and the activation of the area, which prior to the pandemic, we really didn't have that energy and it was a little bit more docile and sleepy,” he said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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