HAVERHILL — When local restaurants get approval to open, Mayor James Fiorentini said he will do whatever he can to support them — including designing ways to help them adapt to new social-distancing rules.

Gov. Charlie Baker has said he expects restrictions on some businesses will be eased starting next week, and his stay-at-home advisory is also scheduled to be lifted. It was unclear what restrictions will be eased and which businesses will be affected. The governor is scheduled to unveil more information by early next week.

But as the mayor talked earlier this week about Haverhill’s long-range plan to rebound from the coronavirus crisis, much of his focus was on helping restaurants, which are central to the city’s economy, especially downtown.

Fiorentini said as businesses prepare to open, they will be given guidelines, templates and checklists from the state, with enforcement left up to the city’s Board of Health. Strict hygiene standards will also be instituted for employees of businesses.

“Businesses will be allowed to open when they’ve read and gone through the template and checklist, but it’ll be our job as the Board of Health to enforce it,” Fiorentini said. “We understand that it’s very, very frustrating for our businesses. People are coming to us for guidance and we just don’t know (specifics) yet.”

Fiorentini plans to ease the burden for restaurants by helping them quickly build outdoor dining areas called parklets, creating more space for customers. Fees charged by the city to build such facilities will be waived for several months and grants will be available to help construction, Fiorentini said. 

“We don’t anticipate a big parking problem right now — we anticipate a problem with the restaurants having a place to put their customers,” the mayor said.

Whether restaurants can serve alcohol in outdoor dining areas is up to the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, Fiorentini said. He said he hopes to petition the state to speed up approvals needed for Haverhill restaurants so they can serve liquor to customers outdoors.

Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce President Dougan Sherwood said he sees positives in Fiorentini's potential expansion of outdoor dining. 

"We're just coming into the warm weather season, so hopefully this will give restaurants a real fighting chance at a very fragile time," Sherwood said. "This is an opportunity for us to think creatively so we end up at a new normal that's better for everybody."

Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce President Joseph Bevilacqua, also a Haverhill city councilor, has long been strategizing ways to re-engergize the city's downtown district. 

Bevilacqua said he is working on a proposal to devote federal money to local small businesses, giving them the "boost they need" to get back on their feet.

"They need help. They don't have financial reserves," Bevilacqua said. "They've had no income for several months."

Bevilacqua's proposal, which he has brought to Fiorentini, suggests businesses that were created a year or longer ago could be eligible for a federal grant of up to $3,000 using Community Development Block Grant money to assist with reopening. They would not owe money to the city as a result of taking on the grant because it is not a loan and does not use taxpayer dollars, Bevilacqua said. The block grant money comes to communities each year from the federal government.

"We have to help our local employees," Bevilacqua said. "One in four employees is out of work. We have to put people back to work and make sure people feel comfortable and safe doing business locally."

Fiorentini agreed that Haverhill's reopening must be an all-hands-on-deck commitment.

“We’re going to do everything we can to save as many of our restaurants as we can,'' the mayor said. "We know it’s going to be a struggle. We know it’s going to be a struggle for the people who work there, too, and we’ll do everything we can to help.”

 

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