Austin Reida and Kayla Borden were ready to secure their place in the local gastronomic scene last year.
The Alstead couple — who are engaged — know the food industry well, having met around 2007 at Brewbakers Cafe in Keene, where Borden worked and which Reida’s family owned at the time.
In 2018, they decided on a whim to open the food truck Street & Savory, serving locally and ethically sourced comfort food. (They have since renamed the truck Street Savory.) A year later, Borden and Reida took over the kitchen at Branch and Blade Brewing on Bradco Street in Keene and opened a restaurant there.
Things were looking good for 2020.
“The restaurant was doing well, it was growing,” Reida said earlier this month. “The truck’s event calendar was full. We expected that to be a really great year.”
None of their experience prepared them for a global health crisis, though.
The novel coronavirus presented an immediate problem for Street Savory: Social distancing is impossible in a food truck. With employees working shoulder-to-shoulder, Reida said the business made sure they were wearing masks at all times.
Even at Branch and Blade, where customers could sit on the patio outside, the early lack of information about COVID-19 meant taking rigorous — even neurotic — precautions.
“We were literally walking around the restaurant … sanitizing every surface like every five minutes,” Reida said. “The wooden doors had stains from the amount of sanitizer we were spraying on them.”
He and Borden weren’t sure how the pandemic would affect sales, which they had anticipated would be strong last year.
Initially, it was a boon.
The business easily transitioned to a takeout-only model when New Hampshire banned on-site dining, since it was used to serving customers from the truck, Borden and Reida said. Sales jumped threefold.
“We were doing flat-out slammed business, open to close, with no breaks really,” Reida said. “The volume of food we were putting out was absurd.”
That changed quickly, however, and the couple stopped taking pay as revenue waned.
Since Street Savory had opened only two years earlier — and the restaurant just the year before — the business didn’t have deep coffers. Nor did it have a financial record long enough to qualify for many of the pandemic-era relief programs available to small businesses. All it received was a small loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, Reida said.
“We would have loved to close and take some time and decompress or whatever, but we couldn’t afford to,” he said. “We’ve had to just hustle.”
That meant mounting stress for Borden and Reida.
Event organizers who had hired Street Savory to cater large gatherings — which the truck relies on heavily — postponed or canceled outright. Reida estimates the business lost $400,000 in projected sales last year.
Only one of the six weddings Street Savory was scheduled to work happened, Borden said, and even that event was challenging because as the food provider, Street Savory was responsible for enforcing COVID-related safety protocols.
“I’m not going up to the bride to tell her she has to put on a mask,” she said, laughing.
With no income, the couple began struggling to pay their bills. Their credit suffered. Reida worried they could lose their home.
He and Borden said the anxiety in their professional life strained their relationship.
Reida, a former EMT for DiLuzio Ambulance Service in Keene and firefighter and EMT in Alstead, compared the emotional toll of navigating the pandemic as a small business owner to the adrenaline involved in emergency response — except it didn’t subside.
“When everything’s an emergency all day … you run out of emergency hormones that regulate those things,” he said. “You run out of the reserves that you live with — you tap into that over and over until you’re just exhausted.”
Street Savory announced in early September that it would close its kitchen at Branch and Blade and pause food-truck operations due to the financial challenges facing the business.
In a Facebook post announcing their decision, Borden and Reida said there was “no way” they could survive the winter due to capacity limits on indoor dining.
Those restrictions, along with hesitancy about returning to public spaces, have squeezed many Granite State eateries: More than 200 have shuttered during the pandemic, according to the N.H. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“It’s a really tough industry,” Reida said. “It’s exhausting in the best of times, and then when you get decimated by a pandemic, it’s kind of intolerable.”
When he and Borden paused operations at Street Savory and went into his previous line of work — contracting — they considered shutting down the truck for good. But their employees resisted.
“We kind of announced, ‘Everything’s going,’ ” Borden said. “… Our staff were like, ‘No, you can’t.’ ”
So she and Reida jumped at an opportunity to reopen their truck at Modestman Brewing late last year, when the downtown Keene brewery was planning to close its own food truck, Guru, for the winter. With no assurance that Street Savory would earn enough to let them take salary, the couple stayed in contracting and have let their small staff — led by chef Ian Rota — handle day-to-day operations of the truck since November with a mandate only to break even, Reida said.
“That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “… Everybody on board just totally gave their hearts to it and kept it going and just wanted to be there. There was a lot of love in our group.”
Street Savory has enjoyed a renaissance at Modestman, according to Borden and Reida.
The brewery is at the heart of the downtown scene, so there’s always heavy foot traffic, unlike at Branch and Blade’s location in south Keene. And the taproom is large enough to accommodate plenty of customers even under social-distancing guidelines, Reida said, meaning they can eat inside or on its outdoor patios.
“We didn’t make much over the winter, but we didn’t lose money either,” he said. “We kept it alive.”
Yet danger still lurks. Borden and Reida know that a COVID-19 case — or outbreak — on their staff could force Street Savory to close temporarily and create more financial trouble.
“A huge amount of it’s just luck,” Reida said. “I know other businesses that are super, super conscious [of safety protocols] and still had cases. We’ve been asking ourselves every day since it started, ‘When’s it our turn? When do we get hit?’ ”
With warmer weather arriving and more people getting vaccinated, he and Borden are nearly ready to start running the truck full-time again.
Two trucks, actually.
The couple recently took over Modestman’s own food truck, which they plan to rebrand and reopen on the brewery’s back patio soon. That will create more kitchen space and also allow the Street Savory truck, which will remain based at Modestman, to resume catering large events.
On the docket this year: weddings and dozens of concerts at the Cheshire Fairgrounds venue Northlands (formerly Drive-In Live).
The couple is confident that after several years struggling just to remain viable, their business is finally turning a corner.
“I think we’re at the place now that we were before COVID,” Reida said. “Like, alright, we’ve paid our dues.”
More in this series:
Health care workers are used to dealing with worst-case scenarios — blunt traumas, drug overdoses, heart attacks.
At first it was just busy, like it is around the holidays, though there were signs. Food banks were starting to stock up. A customer might ask for a case of something, instead of a can.
New Hampshire’s county jails are rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates, after a year in which numerous outbreaks have struck correctional facilities here and across the U.S.
Doug Iosue, the superintendent of the Cheshire County jail in Keene, said the facility administered its first 10 doses to inmates Thursday.
“It’s sort of a ray of hope,” he said. “… I hope this will only continue to help us to be well-protected here.”
All 10 of New Hampshire’s county jails have access to vaccines, and their populations have been fully eligible since the state expanded vaccination registration. Jail officials say they’re now contending with some of the same challenges as the national vaccination campaign, including vaccine hesitancy and the Johnson & Johnson pause, along with factors unique to correctional settings.
Like other congregate-living settings, jails and prisons have been hit hard by the pandemic. At least 394,000 coronavirus cases have been reported among state and federal prisoners nationwide, and more than 2,500 have died, according to data gathered by the news outlet The Marshall Project.
In New Hampshire, health officials have reported 14 outbreaks at 11 local, state and federal correctional institutions linked to nearly 900 resident cases and more than 200 staff cases as of Thursday. Three state prisoners have died from COVID-19 since March 2020, according to N.H. Department of Corrections data.
The Cheshire County jail has had three confirmed staff cases and no known cases among inmates, Iosue said.
New Hampshire opened vaccines to correctional workers in January, as part of its vaccination plan’s Phase 1b, but didn’t create a separate category for inmates. That meant they became eligible at the same time as the general population, based on their age and medical conditions. All New Hampshire adults are now eligible.
The state prison system, which is separate from the county jails, began vaccinating its residents in February based on those phases, according to spokeswoman Tina Thurber. Vaccines have now been offered to nearly all people in state prisons, she said, and more than 1,100 out of a total population of about 2,000 have had at least one shot, according to the department’s latest data.
Similarly, Merrimack County jail Superintendent Ross Cunningham said his facility’s first inmates were vaccinated in January, through a partnership with the Capital Area Public Health Network. Additional vaccine clinics were held in February and this past week.
Officials at several other jails said they started inoculating inmates this month or plan to do so soon, after training medical staff and completing the state approval process to become vaccine providers.
The recent pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — as recommended by federal regulators after reports that a small number of recipients had developed a rare and serious type of blood clot — was a snag for several jails planning to start vaccinations.
That included Rockingham County, which had planned to administer its first doses of Johnson & Johnson this past week. Now, Superintendent Jason Henry said, “the state is shipping us the Moderna vaccine next week.”
Cheshire County was also slated to get Johnson & Johnson, but managed to stay on track after the state sent it Moderna doses Wednesday, Iosue said.
Unlike state prisons, jails typically house people for short periods of time and see a lot of turnover. Iosue said Johnson & Johnson is better in that setting because it requires only one shot.
“Given the inmate length of stay being very unpredictable — either short and/or unpredictable — and wanting to ensure they would get fully vaccinated, the one-dose approach was something that made sense to us,” Iosue said.
But he said he still wants to start people on a two-shot vaccine, because the first shot offers at least some protection. People released before their second shot can make an appointment at a community vaccine site, like the one on Krif Road in Keene, by calling 211 or visiting vaccines.nh.gov.
“There’s one potential myth … that if the person’s not going to be there to get a second dose of the vaccine, then they shouldn’t be started,” said Beth Daly, the chief of the N.H. Bureau of Infectious Disease Control. “And that’s not the case, we do want them to go ahead and start the vaccination series.”
Officials are also confronting vaccine hesitancy among some inmates. While Sullivan County jail Superintendent Dave Berry estimated that more than 75 percent of inmates there want the vaccine — which should arrive next week — officials at several other institutions said they were seeing much lower signup rates so far. Iosue said that as of Thursday, 22 out of the Cheshire County jail’s population of roughly 100 had decided to get vaccinated.
Henry said 40 to 45 Rockingham County jail residents want a vaccine so far, out of about 130 total. But he thinks those numbers will go up as they see more of their fellow inmates get vaccinated.
“Right now, I don’t blame them,” he said. “They’re a very suspicious population — they’re in here.”
He and other jail officials said their staffs are talking to residents about the benefits of vaccination and distributing promotional materials.
Daly said state officials are working to address vaccine hesitancy in jails. That includes distributing a video covering the importance of vaccines and debunking common myths.
“We recognize that this is a vulnerable population,” she said. “We want people to get vaccinated. We hope that through some of the messaging we’re doing in partnership with the institutions themselves that the residents will be able to listen to the information … and will make that choice to get vaccinated so they can be protected.”
COVID-19 has taken a major toll at New Hampshire long-term care facilities, accounting for 865 deaths, or almost 70 percent of the 1,257 total fatalities caused by the virus statewide.
With the high death toll, litigation against nursing homes might be expected, but that’s generally not been the case.
Medical malpractice lawsuits are expensive to pursue and could be difficult to prove in the context of a worldwide disease that has been especially hard on elderly and ailing nursing home residents.
Also, an opinion issued nearly a year ago from then-N.H. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, which was requested by Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette, has had a chilling effect on pandemic-related litigation, said personal injury attorney Anthony Carr.
MacDonald, citing existing state statutes, opined that health facilities taking reasonable steps to comply with state orders related to COVID-19 are immune from legal liability for deaths or injuries related to emergency management activities.
Gov. Chris Sununu declared a state of emergency in New Hampshire because of the pandemic on March 13, 2020. He has renewed the declaration numerous times.
MacDonald is now chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
“The advisory opinion is awful, very, very bad, about as bad as it can get,” said Carr, a partner in the Shaheen and Gordon law firm in Concord. “And when I say bad, I mean bad for pretty much everybody, residents in nursing homes, their families, the entire community.
“The only person or people that an opinion like this benefits is the very few at the top who benefit financially and who profit from the operation of nursing homes.”
If interpreted broadly, the opinion could be seen as applying to the understaffing and undertraining that are common features of medical malpractice lawsuits and could be at issue in the way nursing homes responded to the pandemic, Carr said.
He said that “without a doubt” he has had to turn down potential legal cases because of the opinion.
“We’ve had easily 20-plus intakes from various families who have lost a loved one due to COVID,” he said. “They’ve been all types of different circumstances, from facilities that have been the subject of articles and public criticism to more one-off cases. And all I can really say at the moment is that we are actively reviewing those types of cases and being very careful about what we file and when and to date we’ve yet to file a case where the main premise is a COVID-related death.”
Executive Director Marissa Chase of the N.H. Association of Justice, a trial lawyers association, said she also knows of no such lawsuit in the state.
“There are always exceptions to every rule, but, as a general rule, the New Hampshire plaintiffs’ bar is quite small, experienced, and strategic about the cases they choose to pursue,” she said.
Chase also said the legal opinion is fairly specific.
“Our interpretation of the AG’s opinion is that it does not insulate nursing homes from liability for all actions during the pandemic, and that regular negligence standards, which are grounded on reasonableness of conduct, have continued, and will continue, to apply,” she said.
“To illustrate: if an employee at a nursing home administered the wrong medication to a nursing home resident which resulted in serious harm or death to that resident, there is nothing in the Attorney General’s opinion that would preclude a cause of action on behalf of that resident or his/her estate. It is a very narrow opinion intended to protect nursing homes from liability for specific acts taken at the direction of a governmental entity during the pandemic.”
Nationally, there have been more than 200 wrongful death cases arising from COVID-19, none in New Hampshire, according to a complaint tracker maintained by the international law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth.
Many states have approved laws to shield nursing homes from liability over COVID-19 deaths.
Senate Bill 63, pending in the N.H. Legislature, would protect businesses from lawsuits arising from exposure to the disease.
The N.H. Association of Justice opposes that legislation.
“COVID-19 business immunity helps bad actors and punishes good businesses who protected their community. Businesses who did the right thing to protect the community spent time and money in order to do so,” John Kenison, president of the association, stated in a letter to state Sen. Harold French, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Kenison also said the state constitution protects negligence claims.
Meanwhile, lawsuits unrelated to COVID-19 continue to be filed against nursing homes in New Hampshire, including facilities owned by Genesis Healthcare. The Pennsylvania-based company has 325 nursing homes across the country, including 28 in New Hampshire.
Genesis spokeswoman Lori Mayer defended the company’s performance.
Records kept by the state Health and Human Services Department indicate 113 people died in COVID-19 outbreaks in the company’s nursing homes in New Hampshire.
This statistic reflects the fact that Genesis is the biggest provider of nursing home beds in the state, Mayer said.
“Genesis operates approximately 32 percent of all skilled nursing facilities and is the largest operator in New Hampshire,” Mayer said. “While our facilities fared much better than our peers, our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who have lost their lives to COVID-19 during this difficult time.
“We are committed to providing high-quality care to our patients and residents.”
She said she could not comment specifically on pending litigation. Lawsuits were filed last year over the deaths of three people who resided in Genesis nursing homes, one in Bedford, one in Concord and one in Keene, a facility the company has since sold.
One involved a man with a heart condition, another was a person who inhaled liquid and a third was a resident who tripped and fell in a parking lot.