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On a recent afternoon at the Waterhouse Restaurant in Peterborough, New Hampshire, general manager Jeff Abbott was filling in as a cook, preparing a plate of sesame-seared ahi tuna.
"We've got some bok choy slaw, pineapple red pepper glaze, and then we've got some pickled onions," Abbot said, as he passed the dish to a server.
While many Massachusetts restaurants have been offering take-out service during the pandemic, they won't be able to serve dine-in customers for another two to three weeks, at least. But in neighboring New Hampshire — where infection rates are much lower than hard-hit Massachusetts -- restaurants, like the Waterhouse, began offering outside seating this week.
"We've been doing a very nice take-out service," said Cy Gregg, co-owner of The Waterhouse, which has a lovely outside patio overlooking the rushing waters of the Nubanusit river. "But it can't replace — from a financial standpoint and from an employee standpoint — actually having customers on site, which is why we've been chomping at the bit."
To survive the past two months, Gregg had to lay off his hourly employees, but he managed to keep some of his full-time staff. Before the pandemic, he seated more than 100 people inside and out. Now, under social distancing requirements, he can only serve about 30 customers on the patio.
"Obviously, I could put four or five more tables out here easily and that would make a big difference from a financial standpoint," he said. "But, hey, that time will come, and once we can start using the inside, that will help, too."
That won't happen for a while. Until then, according to guidance from Gov. Chris Sununu's reopening task force, no more than six customers can be seated at a table, and servers must wear masks and gloves. But it's a start, and much welcomed by customers like Sherri Cheaney, a realtor in Peterborough, who was enjoying lunch with a friend for the first time in weeks.
"It's been horrible," she said, and then laughed. "I've been cooking a lot. And you know, with spring springing, we're just ready to get back to life. I'm just so happy that [The Waterhouse is] open, and I really want to see them make it, so I'm thrilled to be here."
They're also cooking lunch for outside diners at the Pearl Oyster Bar in Peterborough, where owner Harris Welden has struggled to keep the Asian-fusion eatery and a nearby Italian-themed restaurant going. He laid off more than half of his 50 employees, shifted to take-out and delivery only, and watched his cash reserves disappear. He received loans from The CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief bill, which helped. Now, he has a few tables set up outside on the edge of a parking lot.
"We're surviving," Welden said. "It's not ideal. We're not profitable, by any means. The game has always been lose money slower — as opposed to making money."
Even so, Welden was optimistic and said serving customers again — even if it's just a few tables in a parking lot — makes it feel like a normal restaurant again.
"You know, it's a good first step, and hopefully it's a sign of more to come," he said.
But many restaurants still face huge challenges. Not far from Peterborough, three have shut down for good. Across the state as many as 40 have gone out of business, according to Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association. Allowing outside dining helps, but Somers said only about 20-30% of restaurants in the state have space for that.
"So that leaves 70-80% of folks who can't do anything, and so they're still essentially closed at this point, which is not sustainable," he said.
Somers argued that it is time to allow restaurants to fully re-open, albeit with strict safety measures. Many restaurant owners in Massachusetts said they feel the same way — but not all of them. For example, Tony Maws, chef-owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, had to furlough most of his staff and shift to take-out only. He would love to reopen, but he doesn't believe it's safe for any of restaurant to reopen just yet.
"From a health standpoint, in a contained space with a [ventilation hood] pulling air through the entirety of the restaurant, I don't care how many feet people are separated by, I just don't think it's a responsible decision for me to invite people into the restaurant," he said.
Maws even had doubts about the safety of outside service. Under Gov. Charlie Baker's phased reopening plan, the earliest restaurants could offer dining in Massachusetts is June 8, but the governor's reopening advisory board is still considering how and when to do that safely.
Somers, of New Hampshire's Lodging and Restaurant Association, can't speak for Massachusetts, but he said with proper precautions in place — masks, gloves and disinfectant protocols — restaurants in his state are ready to go.
"Historically, the hospitality industry [has been a leader] in sanitation and safety for decades," Somers said. "Just let us get back to business. We can do this. And really, it's driven by our customers, who demand that of us."
Customers will likely have a lot to say about this. Back at the Waterhouse Restaurant in Peterborough, patron Cheaney considered the question: "What if all this is restarting too soon?"
"That's a good question," she said. "I just know my own comfort level. And sitting outside on a patio having some beautiful food is very comfortable for me. I may not go inside a restaurant, but I'm really comfortable right now."
But she said, with more information, or with a new spike of infections, she might change her mind about that.
This segment aired on May 22, 2020.
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