There is no shortage of businesses suffering serious hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shutdown that has accompanied efforts to control its spread. Among them, restaurants and other food and beverage establishments were some of the first forced to curtail operations, prevented by an emergency order of Gov. Chris Sununu from offering onsite dining since March 16, and retail establishments not serving essential needs were shut down 10 days later under the governor’s broad stay-at-home order.
Many food-service businesses have adapted with ingenuity, finding ways to provide or expand pick-up and delivery service, all with the hope of riding out the storm and keeping as many staff on payroll as possible. But if any evidence of the long-term peril facing them was needed, it came with the announcement last week that two well-established restaurants in Marlborough and Dublin, Piedra Fina and Audrey’s Café, were shuttering permanently.
Last Friday, the governor extended New Hampshire’s stay-at-home restrictions at least throughout May, but in doing so he loosened the grip on eating and retail establishments. Under his May 1 order, previously closed retail businesses will be permitted, beginning May 11, to resume in-person operations at 50 percent occupancy and subject to a number of other social-distancing and other health-related guidelines. Restrictions on restaurants will be eased a week later, but only to permit limited outdoor, onsite, dining while continuing to allow pick-up and delivery.
Determining when and how to lift restrictions is a difficult balancing act of weighing public health concerns against the impact of a shut-down economy. Indeed, there are questions about the easing of restrictions in the governor’s order, for instance concerning how and who will enforce them. Restaurants and retail establishments will have to decide whether the restrictions have been eased enough to make ramping up operations under them worthwhile. And yet unknown is to what extent understandably nervous consumers will resume patronizing them.
What will certainly help them is as much of a helping hand as local governments can give them. In our survey before the governor’s revised order last week of some local restaurants about the possibility of eased restrictions, Dayna Landis, a co-owner of Keene’s Machina Arts: Kitchen and Art Bar, noted the challenges implementing outdoor seating would present at its Court Street location because the trees out front would limit pedestrian access to the city sidewalk and any outdoor seating “would have to be right next to the cars [parked on the street], which would be really uncomfortable.” She expressed optimism that in working with the city, a creative solution could be found, and we hope she’s right.
The city of course should not be seen as favoring one business over another. Ensuring that city regulations do not disadvantage a business during the pandemic restrictions, however, is a different matter. In the case of restaurants, the governor alluded to this in announcing the eased restrictions last week, saying “[w]e’re asking for a lot of flexibility from a lot of cities and towns to allow for expanded outdoor seating options.”
The Keene city government has already shown adaptability in addressing the pandemic crisis. We have confidence some temporary creativity can also be found to provide local restaurants and retail businesses an equal chance to take as full advantage of the eased restrictions as possible in their effort to get back on their feet.