Luca Paris didn’t take the reopening of his Central Square dining room lightly.
He had a seating plan using every second table to ensure diners at Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe in Keene stayed six feet apart during their meals. He made cards for each table explaining when masks are required. He swapped out tables for four in one part of the restaurant with tables for two so that he could accommodate more patrons.
All in all, Paris said the first day back to indoor service Monday was busy but good, with a bustling patio and indoor dining room while the restaurant was open from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. He said guests were cooperative with safety guidelines the state requires for restaurants to resume indoor operations, and his team is doing their best to ensure a safe and delicious experience for all.
“Yesterday was a crazy day,” he said Tuesday. “In the best way.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurant owners would be permitted to reopen their dining rooms effective Monday after being forced to close back in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants had been limited to pick-up or delivery service since March 16 and were allowed to open for patio service on May 18.
There are, however, some additional restrictions restaurants must follow. They include requiring staff to wear masks at all times (and asking that customers also wear them whenever they’re not seated at their table) as well as keeping tables spread out and promoting good hand hygiene.
Paris said most people were pleased to be able to sit down in a restaurant again and enjoy a meal. But at least a couple of people insisted on eating outside due to concerns about being in a public setting, he noted.
Like Paris, the owners of other local restaurants saw a lot of business on Monday. Main Street’s Local Burger has also reopened its dining room, and while one employee said there has been a preference for patio seating, she thinks it has more to do with the nice weather than concerns about being around people again.
Valaree Hood, a server, said on Tuesday that the restaurant has done a good job of managing its space to minimize the number of chairs they had to remove while also respecting the six-foot rule for tables. She said it’s been busy, and a lot of people have been anxious for a chance to get outside and do something different.
“I think people have just been home for too long,” she said. “They want to come back out, enjoy the nice weather and get some good food.”
Fritz, which moved from its Main Street location to Central Square just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning in earnest, has opened about a third of its dining room, according to owner Michael Rigoli. He said he’s been busy — not just since on-site service has resumed but even during the period when the restaurant was restricted to take-out.
But getting back to business as usual has been a bit of a struggle, he said. One of the biggest hurdles is he didn’t expect indoor service to be allowed again until July, so he doesn’t have the employees needed to return to full-scale operations.
“I don’t have any staff right now,” he said. “... We’re six people short.”
He also said he’s gotten mixed reactions from his customers about dining indoors, saying that while most of them are appreciative for a chance to be out and about again, a smaller number of people have been “terrorized” by the pandemic and are extremely worried about safety.
He also expressed frustration with Sununu, citing what he described as ever-changing guidelines for how restaurants could operate. He said this has made it difficult to keep up. He even wrote the governor a letter, though Rigoli said he never received a response.
Benjamin Vihstadt, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday morning that the governor had received the letter.
Throughout the reopening process, Paris said it has been his goal to show that restaurants could restart in a way that is safe. He said he has been going by the book when it comes to enforcing the state’s requirements and is unwilling to take any chances.
“We are responsible for making sure that we do this right, because we can be a big part of the solution of making sure people maintain social distancing and maintain the mask wearing to limit the spread [of COVID-19],” Paris said. “We have a responsibility to do that. We don’t want to see a spike here, or concerns about maybe we shouldn’t have opened.”