A message of hope

As people contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, The Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene offers a message of hope on its marquee in this file photo from March.

While a state task force is working on a plan to reopen New Hampshire’s economy, many area establishments say they know it’ll take a while to get back to business as usual.

In the meantime, they are trying to figure out what their new normal will look like, as they seek ways to get back to work while also protecting the safety of their staff and customers.

“Our entire mission really depends upon us bringing together 600 or 800 or 900 people all in one place at one time,” said Alec Doyle, executive director of The Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene. “In the short-term, we’re looking at things we can do to stay engaged with the community, but until such time as we can actually fulfill our mission, we’re just trying to be prepared as much as we can for when that day comes, whatever it looks like.”

Doyle said he’s been giving some thought to what changes the venue will need to make when given the go-ahead to start hosting events again. He expects that theaters will be among the last industries to reopen from COVID-19-prompted closures due to the nature of their business model, but said he’s been in constant discussions with representatives from similar businesses about how to restart operations safely.

Some of those preparations include working with staff and gathering input to formulate a reopening plan that includes a new approach to how the theater works with the public. This could mean changing the way patrons are admitted to the theater, possibly by staggering entry or requiring people to arrive in smaller groups, Doyle said, or how performers get into the building and interact with crew members.

However, cutting back on capacity is not at the forefront of The Colonial’s plans. Doyle said this would interfere with the theater’s business model, explaining that selling a limited number of tickets would make it difficult to cover the cost of hosting events, such as paying artist fees.

In fact, he said if the state allows theaters to reopen but requires a reduction in capacity, it might make more sense for The Colonial’s doors to stay shut until it’s permitted to operate at full volume.

“We’d have to look long and hard at that, and it might actually make more sense in the long run to basically hibernate,” he said.

On the other hand, Vanessa Amsbury-Bonilla, whose family runs the Peterborough Community Theatre, says cutting back on capacity is part of the game plan. The one-screen movie theater will aim to operate at about 50 percent occupancy and will allow films to run twice as long as usual to spread out how many people come to see them on a given day.

She also said patrons may be required to wear masks when in the theater, and there might be seniors-only showings.

Regardless of what the state permits, Amsbury-Bonilla said the theater won’t reopen until at least the summer, with no new releases due out until July. The theater is considering opening in June to show some older movies, she added.

But like The Colonial, the Peterborough Community Theatre’s business model is not designed to function at half capacity, and she said figuring out how to survive will be a challenge. Amsbury-Bonilla said the theater was operating at a loss before closing down, and under continued restrictions, she’s unsure how to keep it afloat.

“For us to bring in less revenue over the course of a year, it’s going to be very significant,” she said. “And I’m not quite sure what the sustainability of that is over time.”

She said she attempted to reach out for support from the Small Business Administration, but never heard anything back. And because the theater is run entirely by her family, and she doesn’t have any employees per se, she said it didn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. The federal loan initiative aims to help small businesses keep staff members on the payroll during the outbreak.

Doyle said The Colonial was luckier on that front and was able to secure $110,000 to make sure the theater’s 15 employees continue receiving paychecks. But like the Peterborough Community Theatre, he says the long-term financial picture is concerning, projecting a roughly $500,000 revenue loss by the end of the year.

Restaurants continue to adapt

Like theaters, restaurants’ business models typically involve serving lots of people in close quarters. Unlike theaters, however, restaurants have been able to stay open so long as their service is restricted to take-out or delivery. But this doesn’t mean they’re done adapting.

Donna Poirier, a manager at Papagallos in Swanzey, said the restaurant’s owners have been weighing a number of options ahead of any formal guidance or new regulations from the state. They’ve begun redesigning their seating chart to allow for 6 feet between each table, she said, and are opening up an event room for use as a dining area to accommodate the more widely spaced tables. They’ve also discussed the possibility of installing outdoor seating, she said.

In the meantime, the restaurant’s take-out business has been going very well, Poirier said. While servers aren’t working, she added, the kitchen staff has still been busy, particularly on weekends, and the restaurant is still doing quite a bit of business.

She also said she doesn’t have too many financial concerns about people still being hesitant to dine out when restrictions are lifted, pointing to the success of the restaurant’s to-go offerings.

Having been in business for 25 years, Poirier said the restaurant is well established, and the community has been eager to step up and show its support.

On the other hand, Machina Arts: Kitchen and ArtBar has been in the food service business for just one year, noted Danya Landis, who owns it with partners Jordan Scott and Rebecca Hamilton. While they’ve also seen strong community support, Landis said they’ve done some serious adapting to keep operating during the shutdown.

Some of those changes have included adjusting their menu to be more fit for travel, and they’ve established a “virtual bar” to sell not only cocktail mixes on a take-out basis, but also to provide tips on mixing drinks and to create a sense of community while maintaining social-distancing practices.

Looking ahead, Landis said the Court Street restaurant will plan on implementing forthcoming guidance from the N.H. Lodging & Restaurant Association, which she said is in the process of drafting a phased protocol for reopening the businesses they represent. The first phase, she said, will involve using outdoor seating, something Landis says will be challenging in Machina’s case.

“We have trees on our sidewalk, so [the city doesn’t] allow us to having seating against our building; because of the trees, people wouldn’t have anywhere to walk,” she explained. “If we had outdoor seating, it would have to be right next to the cars, which would be really uncomfortable. So we’re trying to find ways we can work with the city and with our neighbors to see if we can find a creative solution.”

Later phases will include ensuring that there is six feet of space between tables and barstools, which means seating fewer customers, and continuing heavy sanitization, which Landis said should be a priority for restaurants anyway. Next week, Machina plans to open a pop-up bodega at the restaurant that will sell bulk goods, essential items and prepared meals.

As for the implications of serving fewer people, Landis said it’s no secret that restaurants will be looking at future financial difficulties. But she said she’s determined to keep the business going. She and her partners are always looking for new ways to make up for lost revenue, such as the bodega and the virtual bar, and she said they’ll also be offering cooking classes online via Patreon, an online subscription-based content platform.

“You either adapt or you don’t move forward,” she said. “When I first started the journey of being an entrepreneur and thinking about owning my own business, I had someone tell me that to be successful, it’s all about adapting.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson