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As Temperatures Drop And Restrictions Increase, Conn. Restaurants Face Uncertain Future

Pratt Street in Hartford remains empty during the lunch rush on November 4, 2020.  At the end is Dish Bar & Grill, one of several Connecticut restaurants permanently closed due to COVID-19.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Pratt Street in Hartford remains empty during the lunch rush on Nov. 4, 2020. At the end is Dish Bar & Grill, one of several Connecticut restaurants permanently closed due to COVID-19.

Connecticut has reverted to a modified Phase 2 reopening plan after an increase in coronavirus cases. Among the changes, indoor dining at restaurants had to drop back to 50% capacity. They’re also required to close by 10 p.m., which is a change from the governor’s initial order to close at 9:30. 

To get an understanding of what this means for the restaurant industry, we spoke with Leeanne Griffin, food and dining reporter for the Hartford Courant.

Lori Mack: What do these changes mean for an industry that has already taken a significant hit during the pandemic?

Leeanne Griffin: The restaurants are really upset about this change. A full-service restaurant couldn't really seat anybody past about 8:00. So when they’re looking for three turns of a table throughout the night, especially on a weekend night, they’re losing ... it could be a third of their revenue on a busy night. So when you already have a half-capacity dining room and your revenue is down to begin with, you might be taking away 20% or more of an already shrinking profit.

How helpful is changing the closing time from 9:30 to 10?

I think it depends. I know that the Connecticut Restaurant Association had asked for 11:00 and they had asked for that on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and that was their request. They didn’t think it was unreasonable, and I’m guessing 10:00 may have been the governor’s choice because it wasn’t too far past the initial 9:30.

Now, he said he’s doing that in association with Massachusetts, which has set the same 9:30 closing time for a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. stay-at-home advisory order. So he had said in a press briefing that he didn’t want people driving back and forth between states looking for a later closing time, so he’s trying to work in conjunction with Massachusetts and, I believe, Rhode Island.

I know that 10 p.m. might help somebody if there’s a seating at 8 p.m. and ... they’re having a meal, but I don’t know that it’s exactly what they wanted or needed.

Recently Connecticut issued an amendment to the state’s dining regulations, which prohibited the use of igloos, greenhouses and other structures that many of these restaurants were hoping to make use of during the winter months. That decision has apparently been reversed. In a Facebook post Friday night, the Connecticut Restaurant Association said outdoor structures have now been approved for restaurant use. The Department of Economic and Community Development oversees restaurant reopenings. Leeanne, what’s the concern regarding these structures?

The concern from the DECD is the ventilation. They want to make sure that there’s enough fresh air coming into these structures so there’s always air circulating.

I’ve spoken to Toro Loco in Farmington, and the owner there said the phones are ringing off the hook. People really want to be part of this cool experience -- to sit outside and to have what you would imagine is a safer experience in a relatively outdoor setting. But the main restaurant that has gotten the OK to do it is Millwright’s in Simsbury, and Tyler Anderson has worked with the DECD on how to figure out the best way to get fresh air in there to have ventilation in the structure and to have the servers come and serve from a cart outside the structure so they don’t go in where the diners are.

I know that some restaurants have closed permanently. About how many restaurants are in Connecticut and can you talk about some of the noteworthy closures?

Firebox in Hartford closed in April or May. They were really dependent on the state businesses in the offices around that area, Broad Street. Dish on Main Street in Hartford closed. They weren’t able to take advantage of takeout really easily or outdoor seating, so that was another problem. Park and Oak was a popular place in West Hartford that closed.

Sometimes it came up to the point where a restaurant was looking to renew a lease and because things were so unstable and they didn’t know exactly what would happen in the next few months, that sometimes restaurants opted not to renew a lease in that location.

A sign outside Firebox Restaurant, one of several Connecticut restaurants permanently closed due to COVID-19.
Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
A sign outside Firebox Restaurant, one of several Connecticut restaurants permanently closed due to COVID-19.

Is there a part or parts of the state hit harder than others?

The cities. Downtown Hartford is having a particularly hard time. Downtown Hartford is relying on business traffic, business travel, event-goers going to the XL Center or Hartford Stage or The Bushnell. There isn’t enough traffic to make up for that business, so that is where I’m hearing the most struggle right now is the downtown Hartford restaurants.

How has your job as a food and dining reporter changed this year?

It’s weird. I was telling someone the other day that once this all started to go down in March, I started to wonder, “What does happen to my job?” My whole job is to go out to restaurants and just speak to people and to report on trends and to report on new openings and closings, and I thought, “What is it going to look like in a month?” I had no idea. It was just this weird kind of surreal feeling. So the first few weeks were a lot of gathering reactions from restaurants and talking to people about how this is going to impact them. Some people thought it would be two weeks, a month, and then it was clear it was stretching well beyond April.

I got pulled into a lot of general assignment reporting because with a smaller staff, we really needed everybody hands-on-deck to be doing everything. I really started to move back into restaurant reporting once the outdoor dining opened up again in May and then once indoor dining opened again in June, but it’s really taken a lot to get back to reporting on menus and things that would have been normal before all of this.

Aside from the length of time that this has been going on, is there anything else that surprised you out of all this?

I think just how resilient the restaurant owners are, and I think that’s probably by nature, the industry, because it is kind of capricious, and the toughness people have shown, the creativity people have shown, the ability to get back up after being knocked down, the sheer willpower that they’ve had to get through this has been truly impressive.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and produced for the web by Tucker Ives.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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