An accustomed ritual for area residents each year, as the region slogs through the late winter of town meeting time and then the mud season, is the eager anticipation of those hopeful signs of warmth and blossoming that mean we are at last emerging from the darkness and cold into the spring season. Credit the long weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown with a completely new sign of hope and renewal this year — the reopening that began Monday of restaurants and eateries for limited outdoor service.
Restaurants, other dining establishments and bars were among the earliest casualties of the war on the coronavirus, ordered by Gov. Chris Sununu to shut down their on-site service due to the public health concerns even before he issued his March 26 stay-at-home order that closed nonessential businesses. Some found ways to soldier on with take-out and delivery service in an effort to serve customers and save jobs. Others suspended operations and hunkered down, hoping to outlast the shutdown.
And this sheltering period has certainly taken its toll. In recent weeks, several familiar and favorite establishments of the regional dining scene have fallen victim. Among the permanent closures attributed to the pandemic are Piedra Fina restaurant in Marlborough and Audrey’s Café in Dublin, Peterborough’s Kogetsu restaurant, and, in the past few days, Keene’s Elm City Bagels and Royal Spice restaurant both announced they have closed or will shortly. All will be missed by the many who enjoyed them over the years.
For those that have been able to hold on, though, the opportunity to begin serving customers on-site again — even in a socially-distanced way and only outdoors — must have been a welcome start to what all hope will be the road back. And the chance for outdoor dining clearly tapped into a pent up-demand of cabin-fever-suffering area residents on Monday, who took advantage of the recent warming of the persistently cold spring weather to patronize restaurants and bars, looking like so many animals emerging from hibernation and blinking and basking in the sunlight.
As hopeful as this small step back is for the eating establishments, the economic future for them remains uncertain, as it is for so many retail and other businesses. Thus, it was encouraging to learn that area restaurateurs have been meeting regularly (yet remotely) to share ideas, keep informed and simply lift each other’s spirits as they planned for reopening for patio operations safely and going forward. In the current economic situation, an all-for-one and none-for-all attitude might be expected, but collaboration and idea-sharing are surely the better path, both for the establishments themselves and for the gradual return of the vibrancy of Keene’s downtown and the region as a whole.
The resilience of area restaurants and bars in getting to this point is to be applauded. But it will be a long way back for them, and the eating-out experience may never again be completely the same in a socially distanced environment as it was before. Area residents have helped them through this shutdown period by ordering take-out and delivery and purchasing gift cards. While the restaurants and bars will surely welcome as many as they can to their limited and socially distanced outdoor facilities, those means of support will still be necessary to sustain them as they seek to recover.