One week into outdoor dining during the COVID-19 crisis, Haverhill restaurant owners say business is slowly returning and there's a definite learning curve — but the summer forecast is looking bright. 

The first hint of a successful summer to come: Monday was the first day since the crisis began that Haverhill went without a single new COVID-19 case, according to Mayor James Fiorentini. The city's case count now stands at 1,155, as of the Gazette's Tuesday press time. Fifty-nine residents have died from the disease, according to city health officials.

A week earlier, the city had 1,123 cases and 56 deaths. The week before that, the numbers were 1,085 and 55. 

Fiorentini says Haverhill now has a 90% recovery rate from the virus.

While the state continues in phase two of Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening plan, Fiorentini is offering a program to help city restaurants bounce back from the pandemic by expanding their outdoor seating options. Through the program, restaurants are able to apply for grant funding to add outdoor locations and enhance dining options for patrons. 

"The city has moved very quickly to streamline a process that is clear and simple and allows restaurants to change their exterior footprint to serve more customers," said Dougan Sherwood, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce.

'We just took everything outside'

Sherwood praised the fast actions of Fiorentini and others at City Hall, including the Inspectional Services department. He said they issued 34 permits to restaurants immediately after reviewing applications for safety and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other factors.

Prior to June 8, Haverhill restaurants could only cater to customers through takeout or delivery during the pandemic. Now, customers can dine in the open air and, in some cases, enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors. Restaurants which did not previously have a license to serve alcohol outdoors and that have applied for outdoor dining through the new program saw their liquor license approvals expedited, as long as they have a manager on site at their chosen outdoor dining location. 

Mike Difeo, owner of Mr. Mike's restaurant on Route 125 near the Plaistow line, pitched a tent in the parking lot of his restaurant to allow for up to 170 diners to get their favorite "dinner for 2" specials nightly and play Keno seven days a week. Diners can also sit on one of two patios at the restaurant, Difeo said. 

"We just took everything outside," he said. "You'd be surprised how much you feel like you're at a wedding or a function under the tent. I was scared you'd feel like you were sitting in a parking lot — that was my biggest concern.''

Sherwood said early adopters of outdoor dining like Difeo have inspired other restaurateurs in the city to pursue outdoor dining when they may have otherwise not considered it. 

"It's been small but it's been awesome," Sherwood said of outdoor dining in the city. "Not everyone (all restaurants) wanted to get involved because they liked takeout and delivery, but now they're asking me how to fill out the application (for outdoor dining)."

City provides money, support

Restaurant owners interested in an outdoor permit are able to petition the city to serve customers in any manner that they wish, as long as it is outside, safe and compliant with disability laws.

The city's grant program allows restaurants to get up to $5,000 to purchase outdoor dining supplies, personal protective equipment and other necessary items. As of the Gazette's press time Tuesday, 10 restaurants have applied for a grant, said the mayor's spokesman Shawn Regan.

To block off areas around restaurants and keep diners safe, the city is leasing jersey barriers that will be provided to restaurants free of charge for five months, Regan said. Since the barriers are leased, restaurants cannot paint or alter them, though the city is exploring other ways to decorate them.

Kruegers and Olivia's restaurants, which share a building in the downtown district, purchased 14 picnic tables that can  seat up to 60 people.

General manager Jason Petrou, whose family owns the two restaurants, said he hopes diners feel like they're eating in the North End. 

"For us it’s been great. There are a lot of logistical challenges but things are getting smoother each day," Petrou said. "Customers seem really happy to be outside and, for the most part, have been understanding and patient."

Difeo has also seen a change in customer dining habits since his restaurant reopened. Normally open each night until midnight, Mr. Mike's has had to curb weeknight hours because Difeo has had trouble filling seats, he said.

"I've noticed since this whole thing started, people are eating earlier," said Difeo, who now closes his restaurant at 8 p.m. "Since there's no bar to sit at beforehand, people tend to get out of work and eat much earlier."

Still, he said he doesn't impose a time limit on customers or require reservations.

"We tried to do reservations the first few days but were overwhelmed," he said. "We didn't want people standing in line. We didn't want a time limit, because we're a local place and we have so many loyal customers that I can't imagine having to ask them to leave. That wouldn't be fair."

Finding outdoor space

Matt Gaiero, who owns G's restaurant on Washington Street with his wife, Denise, said each day serving patrons outdoors is a "new experience."

The year-old eatery that serves "Texas southern flare" dishes is normally permitted for 96 guests between its indoor and outdoor space, but has had to utilize 10 tables outdoors to serve 30 diners because of COVID-19 restrictions, Gaiero said. In addition to using his restaurant's front patio, Gaiero also asked the city's permission to set up outdoor dining in the alleyway next to the restaurant and was allowed to do so, he said.

Gaiero's restaurant is continuing to serve the same limited menu from executive chef Michael Cerasuolo and sous chef Rich Rock that it used for takeout and delivery, with additional daily specials. G's is bringing all meals to diners from the kitchen to their tables with the food wrapped in takeout containers to keep things as sanitary as possible, Gaiero said.

Business has been slow but steady, he said. 

"After New Hampshire opened up, the takeout business went right down the tubes,'' he said, "so outdoor dining in Haverhill came at the right time.''

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