With New Hampshire restaurants getting the green light to start serving food in outdoor seating areas later this month, Keene officials will offer some flexibility to help them meet state requirements, according to City Manager Elizabeth Dragon.
Dragon said Monday that the city hasn’t received requests for new outdoor seating permits just yet, but she’s expecting them to start rolling in soon. In the meantime, she said her office is getting to work on the process of renewing the 17 outdoor seating permits that already exist.
“Right now, people are just anxious to get their licenses renewed as the first step,” Dragon said. “But I anticipate more requests coming in for some additional space. We are going to try to make it happen as best we can given the limitations of the sidewalk and the parking and where businesses are located.”
On Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced an amended version of his stay-at-home order that eased up on some restrictions that had been imposed on businesses earlier in the COVID-crisis. Restaurants had been required to operate on a take-out and delivery only basis since mid-March.
Starting May 18, restaurants will be allowed to reopen for on-site service, so long as tables are outside, six feet apart and limited to six guests per table. Employees and patrons are also strongly encouraged to wear face masks when in public.
But limiting on-site service to dining al fresco could present a problem for restaurants that have been ineligible for those permits in the past because of the size and layout of their buildings.
Danya Landis, one of the owners of Machina Arts: Kitchen and ArtBar, said they have not been able to use the area outside the Court Street restaurant for outdoor seating, as there are trees on the sidewalk that limit the amount of space available for pedestrians.
Because of this, Landis said the city has previously told the restaurant it cannot put seating up against its building, and they’ve hesitated to put seating elsewhere because the only other space would be too close to vehicles. But she said the restaurant is looking for inventive ways to address the problem so they can start serving customers on-site again soon.
“We are taking it as an opportunity to find a way to use creative problem-solving to provide outdoor seating with the space we have with the help of the city and our neighbors,” Landis said Tuesday. “We plan to submit a proposal to the city in the next couple weeks with the hope to be able to provide outdoor seating to our customers as soon as possible.”
Each request for additional outdoor seating will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, according to Dragon, and the city will work with restaurants to see what options are on the table. Dragon said that could include allowing restaurants to utilize more sidewalk space than the city would normally permit or potentially using parking spaces for seating.
She said she’s also received requests from restaurants looking to construct new outdoor dining areas on their own property, which would eliminate the need to use public rights-of-way.
“A couple of places are interested in using tents, again on private property, their own parking lot next to a restaurant,” Dragon said. “So I think people are going to get creative, and I think that’s great. We’ll do all that we can to make that happen and respond, but [also] make sure everyone’s doing the best they can to comply with the social-distancing requirements.”
Meanwhile, some local restaurants that have long served people outdoors are gearing up to open their patios after May 18.
The Stage Restaurant and Cafe, on Central Square, plans to open its patio May 19, according to a post on its Facebook page. Reservations will be available for outdoor seating, but guests will be limited to one hour on the patio, the post said, adding that the outdoor service will be dependent on the weather.
After offering take-out for a couple of weeks following Sununu’s original order banning on-site dining, The Stage closed down entirely March 23.
“We will be following all CDC, OSHA, FDA and NH [government] guidelines to maintain a healthy environment for our employees and our customers,” the May 4 post said. “We are looking forward to seeing everyone real soon!”