Restaurants Encouraged By Loosened COVID Guidelines
Governor Ned Lamont earlier this month announced rollbacks on pandemic restrictions for many businesses.
As of March 19, capacity limits have been eliminated for restaurants and non-theater indoor recreation locations, libraries, museums, aquariums, gyms/fitness centers, retail locations and offices, personal services, and houses of worship. Restaurants do have an 11 pm curfew and an eight-person per table limit.
The above locations must continue maintaining mask, spacing, and cleaning protocols.
This is good news for countless restaurateurs who have been crippled during the past year due to restrictions as COVID-19 ravaged the country. In Connecticut alone, more than 7,800 people have died due to the virus.
Last weekend, though, diners did begin to cautiously head back out to some local restaurants.
Eli Hawli, owner of Market Place Kitchen & Bar Restaurants, said last weekend was the first time in months that he saw multigenerational diners together. Hawli was at his Church Hill Road location during the lunch rush on Tuesday.
“Grandparents were with grandkids for the first time in a year,” Hawli said March 23. Behind him, servers and his assistant manager were rushing to take and deliver orders, wipe down tables, and keep the customers who were enjoying the beautiful weather as happy as possible. Some inside tables were filled, as were a few booths near the bar, but every available table on the patio outside the eatery was in use.
“Last weekend we definitely saw an uptick,” Hawli said. “It’s very exciting to see people coming back. It’s almost like a rebirth.”
Matt Dohan, general manager for the Newtown and Danbury Market Place locations, agreed with Hawli’s assessments.
“We did notice a significant volume increase, more so with the evening hours,” Dohan said.
Customers were comfortable being out again, he said.
“In certain times, a little too comfortable,” he added.
“We had to really drive home the mask-wearing reinforcements Friday and Saturday night. I think in many people’s minds, it was 100 percent and masks off,” he said. “That’s going to be a challenge moving forward. We know people are tired of wearing masks. We are, too.”
Masks, distancing, and other measures that have become the norm will remain in place. The restaurant continues maintain spacing between tables, thanks to dividers that have been installed between booths. Additionally, tables are not yet being added back to the interior dining areas, Dohan mentioned.
“We used to have tables really close to each other, which we still can’t do,” Dohan said the afternoon before the newest guidelines went into effect. “The measures are simply ‘Maintain, stay the course.’”
Dohan said the governor’s announcement earlier this month is meant more for customers than restaurants.
“The guidelines that are for the 100% opening, in our opinion, is more of a confidence booster for the public, than a change for the restaurant platform,” he said. “We’ve been in this limbo period for a while, and that seems to continue, but just with a little more confidence.”
The venues that will benefit the most from Friday’s new guidelines will be wedding venues, he said.
“Venues that have massive floors, with wide open space, that operating at 50% will look like a skeleton of what they can actually do, those are the ones that will benefit now,” he said. “They’re going to be able to increase their capacity to 100% and still maintain social distance, because they have the space for it.”
In announcing the loosening of the restrictions on March 4, Lamont cautioned that another rollback is possible should additional, more contagious variants of the virus take hold and restaurants and ICUs again face being overwhelmed.
“While it is encouraging to see the number of cases in our state gradually going down and people getting vaccinated at rates that are among the highest in the nation, we need to continue taking this virus seriously to mitigate its spread as much as possible,” Lamont said.
“Connecticut has made tremendous strides to combat this pandemic, and we don’t want to lose the progress that we’ve made,” the governor also said during that afternoon’s press conference.
Just One Step
According to the Associated Press, an industry trade group cautioned that full capacity in restaurants is just one step toward getting back to business as usual.
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, told the AP last week that most restaurant owners he has spoken to expect to be open at 65% or possibly 70% capacity, and not 100% because of social distancing rules.
Villa Restaurant owner Vito Kalo is among the restaurateurs who recognized the predicament of the latest guidelines.
“They’ve loosened some restrictions, but they still have the six feet distance” between people or groups, Kalo said March 18. The loosened restrictions will not yet make a difference to him.
“We can’t increase the number of people coming into the dining room yet because we still have to keep the tables apart,” he said.
Fortunately, the Villa is another restaurant with outdoor dining. Patrons sat outside later into the 2020 season, and will return to the patio overlooking Sandy Hook Center any time the weather permits comfortable dining.
Until social distancing measures are lifted, Kalo and his staff will continue to clean tables and chairs before and after every customer, use disposable paper menus, and sanitize hands frequently.
“For pickup, we have people going in one door, and exiting another way,” he said. “We’re offering curbside takeout if people are not comfortable coming in for the food. We’re doing everything we can.”
As of March 19, more than 600 Connecticut restaurants and caterers have permanently closed during the pandemic, while about 300 have closed temporarily.
Scott Dolch said some of those businesses are beginning to reopen their doors with the latest changes and what he says has been growing confidence among customers with the safety precautions being taken, coupled with greater numbers of vaccinations.
Dolch said proposed legislation that would extend Lamont’s executive order allowing expanded outdoor dining could encourage more restaurants to reopen or expand their dining capacity. It is currently set to expire April 20.
A bipartisan bill that, among other things, would allow public sidewalks, parking lots, and grassy areas to be used for outdoor food and beverage service, was being considered Friday by the Planning and Development Committee.
The Newtown Market Place location is already counting on that bill. Matt Dohan said this week that the Church Hill Road restaurant will be getting a tent for the parking lot by early April.
“It will be between the walkway to the back patio and the stop sign” that controls traffic within the shopping center, he said. “That will greatly expand our outdoor seating.”
Focusing On Outgoing Orders
One restaurant that has no plans to change its current business plan is Franco’s Pizza & Pasta. Elizabeth Siemon, whose husband is a partner in the Sand Hill Plaza restaurant, said Franco’s will not yet be opening the few tables in its dining area.
“We have a lot of deliveries,” Siemon said March 18. “We are going to keep the tables closed for the time being because it’s safer for us — the drivers can come in and out and still maintain distance — and it’s more efficient to keep running the business that way.”
In recent months, the restaurant has employed as many as seven drivers on a Friday or Saturday night, in addition to those who cook and those who answer the phones. Franco’s currently does not have a server, Siemon mentioned this week.
“We need to be efficient with our deliveries and takeout,” Siemon said. Drivers use the front dining space to stage orders, fold boxes, and prepare for their next run out to local homes and businesses.
Customers who pick up their orders stop just inside the entrance, where their food is waiting for them. Others stay in their vehicles, and an employee walks their order out for curbside service.
Wednesday afternoon, Siemon, husband and co-owner Marcio Santo, and co-owner Poliana Primo were all working as the evening rush began. One driver was out on a delivery, a second was due at 5 pm, and two employees were working in the kitchen.
“We’ve stayed with a very small crew, and I think we’re safer,” Siemon said. “We have good employees, we have good customers, and we’ve been able to survive this year.”
While she misses having customers at the tables, Siemon said she is grateful for acceptance from customers.
“Most people have been very understanding,” she said. “It’s a global thing, this pandemic. It’s not like only we are suffering. The whole world is suffering.”