After two months of being limited to curbside pickup and delivery only, restaurants and cafes across New Hampshire are again serving customers outdoors.
Monday marked the next phase in the gradual reopening of the state’s food service industry, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting restrictions.
Outdoor tables were available during lunch service at the River House in Portsmouth, which is able to seat up to 96 people on its decks and patios overlooking the water.
“We’ve probably been working towards this date, it feels like an eternity, it’s really been two months,” said Justin Rivlin, the restaurant's general manager.
Along with asking customers to wear masks while passing through their building and when using the bathroom, the River House also implemented an online bill pay system from its tables, and an expedited ordering process to limit contact between diners and their servers.
“We put in just about every single safeguard we could possibly read about in the last two months, and I think because of that, we’ve really created an environment that is safe, not only for our guests but for our employees,” he said.
But just because restaurants are again allowed to open doesn’t mean customers feel comfortable heading out.
There was still ample parking around Portsmouth - a rare sight - and plenty of empty tables at Tuscan Market, which offers prime people watching from its corner of Market Square.
“I think it will definitely take a little bit for everyone to get back out there completely,” said Nathan Amundsen, who was enjoying a cup of coffee at a sidewalk table. “But it is nice to see things trying to get back to normal.”
As Amundsen stood up, an employee of Tuscan Market quickly wiped down the table with disinfectant, something the restaurant says it is doing as a precaution multiple times an hour.
The coronavirus didn’t seem to be on the mind of Samantha O’Loughlin and her friend Jessica Nadeau, who lingered after eating at one of four tables on the freshly built deck behind Main Street Station in Plymouth.
“We were just saying how excited we were to actually be at a restaurant and get the food in front of us. It's kind of weird,” O’Loughlin told NHPR. “It's kind of bittersweet because I missed this so much.”
Down the road in Plymouth at Phat Fish, Bill Nye (not the science guy) was about to dig into a plate of macaroni and cheese with shrimp.
“It's awful good food here, by golly,” he said, enjoying the fresh air.
It isn’t clear when diners may be allowed back inside of restaurants. Many restaurants that lack outdoor space are likely to remain closed, as the economics of serving just a handful of tables prohibits rehiring staff and ordering ingredients.
Some municipalities, including Manchester, are implementing new policies including the use of private parking lots for tables, in an effort to give restaurants more al fresco space to offer meals.