CONCORD — Restaurants will be allowed to ease social distancing requirements by erecting protective barriers, potentially allowing them to seat more people than has been possible under rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Chris Sununu announced the change at a news conference Thursday afternoon and also said he would hold a roundtable discussion with restaurant owners on Friday to hear their concerns.
Restaurants have been required to maintain 6 feet of separation between tables. This has cut down on dining room space. Under the new rules, this separation requirement would be eased if there was a barrier.
Many establishments have opened outdoor areas to make up for seating lost indoors when tables had to be spaced out to allow the proper separation.
As the weather turns colder and as outdoor dining becomes uncomfortable, some restaurateurs have expressed concerns about whether their businesses can survive.
The new rules should help increase indoor dining capabilities. The barriers could allow all booths to be utilized, for example, or certain areas of a dining room could be partitioned to maximize seating.
Dave Henrick, owner of the 405 Pub & Grill in Laconia, welcomed the change.
“Anything that moves us in the right direction and allows more tables on the inside is good,” he said. “There are still a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable coming inside, so the outside seating has been the grace of God for us.
“Coming into the cold season, anything will help.”
He said he will install Plexiglas shielding.
“You have to be adaptive to the world pandemic that we are in,” Henrick said.
Reuben Bassett, owner of Local Eatery and Burrito Me restaurants in downtown Laconia said the change could be helpful but its ultimate impact remains to be seen.
“It gives us some options,” he said. “You don’t know what the public perception is going to be. Moveable walls might be an option.”
Mike Somers, president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Lodging & Restaurant Association, said his organization advocated for the change in the rules.
“As we are edging toward cold weather here, the real concern is about losing outdoor dining,” he said. “This could provide great occupancy and a fighting chance to survive the winter.”
He said that eventually restaurants would like to see an easing of the indoor entertainment prohibition, possibly allowing solo artists or an allowance for some indoor games with the provision that those who are not playing would be seated.
The new rules posted at www.covidguidance.nh.gov state that the barriers must be non-porous and rigid:
“Any barrier used must be at a height that extends at least 6 feet from floor level and must be installed between tables and high traffic areas. All barriers must allow for adequate airflow and air exchanges for each table.
“Each restaurant must consult with its HVAC contractors to ensure that any barriers that are installed do not cause issues with limiting air exchanges throughout the restaurant.
“No barrier shall be installed within 18 inches of a sprinkler head.”