Pressure Grows on Governor To Open indoor Dining
CT Post, May 14, 2020
By Ken Dixon and Alexander Soule
Under increasing pressure from the state’s devastated restaurant industry, Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday that if the proper procedures for outside service are successful, diners might be allowed to eat inside by June 20 or earlier.
Lamont defended his decision to allow only alfresco seating when restaurants are allowed a soft reopening on May 20, stressing that he and state health officials want to see how the industry and the public reacts.
The reopening of restaurants is highly anticipated as Connecticut starts to emerge from the backside of the pandemic, the fear of crowded public places, and the surge in unemployment.
“I’m going to err on the side of caution,” said Lamont. “I think we are one of the earlier states to allow outside dining. Why outside, not inside? You’re 90 percent more likely to catch the infection inside than you are outside, following even some of the best protocols. I think we’re going to get the inside dining, but I think it’s not simply a matter of the state saying June 20, it’s also a matter of giving the consumers confidence.”
The state Department of Public Health in Wednesday reported an additional 84 COVID-19-related fatalities, bringing the total to 3,125. A net decline of 31 hospitalization brought the current total to 1,158.
Regardless of the next steps after the May 20 partial reopening, a lot has to happen just for that first phase to kick in. On Wednesday, Lamont’s administration released a comprehensive outline of allowances municipalities can offer to free up seating.
The executive order set off a scramble among cities and towns to set up approvals for the eateries in their jurisdictions. Municipalities are not allowed to charge fees as part of the process. Breweries will be allowed to serve patrons outside if there are food trucks there.
While Lamont used the June 20 target, he indicated that indoor eating could be allowed earlier in the month, but he dismissed a June 3 date requested earlier in the day by restaurateurs and some of their supporters in related industries.
During the governor’s daily meeting with reporters, he was joined by two state lawmakers who are both in the restaurant business and did not push back on the June 20 date.
Senator Formica back to top
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, the owner of a combination fish market and restaurant in his hometown, said a lot is at stake and if restaurants open too soon and the coronavirus pandemic heats up again, the industry that has been nearly idled by the pandemic could slide into even deeper trouble.
“I don’t want to give up July and August for a hurried opening, but it’s up to people to take personal responsibility if we’re going to make this work,” Formica said via teleconference.
Sen. Christine Cohen, the owner of a fast-casual, bagel-centric spot on the Post Road in Madison, said that her business dropped off by about 50 percent and has come back only slightly in recent days. “Public health has to be paramount in this,” Cohen said.
“Most people are following the safety protocols, they’re wearing masks when they come to pickup their orders,” Cohen said. “I think we’re ready. It remains to be seen whether I will open up outdoor tables for dining. I’ve heard from a lot of restaurants as well. They’re concerned with getting the proper equipment in time, having the PPE available for their employees, making sure they have the sanitizer and the cleaning wipes available, making sure they have those plexiglass divides at cashiers and cash registers, having a touch-less payment option.”
During the morning rush hour Lamont said in an interview on classic-rock station WPLR that he thought the June 20 date for some indoor dining was a good target.
“We’ll take a look at restaurants, for example, and say the outside dining, the protocols were strictly enforced,” Lamont said. “People followed it, people wore their masks. You can take a look at inside dining at that point, because it worked on the outside.”
Lamont made his remarks just hours before about 130 industry supporters, including farms, hotels and tourism interests, asked Lamont to begin some level of indoor dining service by Wednesday June 3 because outdoors-only, like the pickup service and delivery service over the last two months, is not sustainable and cannot regain more than a fraction of the industry’s jobs.
“We hope the proposed compromises we’ve put forward will be acceptable to him and his team, and that Connecticut’s local restaurant industry and the 160,000 people it employs will be protected and helped during this incredibly difficult period,” said Scott Dolch, executive director of the 1,400-member Connecticut Restaurant Association, which issued a letter in which they stressed the need to open more fully to stay alive.
The association proposed an initial limit of 50-percent occupancy indoors; no physical contact with staff; no bar activity; mandatory gloves and masks for staff; intensive cleaning between customers, new technology for contact-less payment and menu presentation; and encouraging older customers to eat outdoors. Overall, there are about 8,500 restaurants in Connecticut.
Businesses that signed the petition included Aspetuck Brew Lab in Bridgeport, food purveyors such as Island Oysters in Norwalk, and the regional destinations Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun in eastern Connecticut.
“We understand why some outside the restaurant industry might believe that outdoor dining will allow restaurants to stay in business during this time, but it simply isn’t true,” the association said. “While some additional outdoor dining should absolutely be allowed, assuming it is a solution for these businesses it is unfortunately a false hope. Many restaurants are already failing — hundreds of more will permanently shutter in the weeks ahead if we don’t give them a chance to prove they can begin serving the public safely indoors.”
The association has created a “Connecticut Restaurant Promise” for venues to certify steps they are taking to ensure customers are protected from contracting the coronavirus.
The clock is ticking for any restaurants that borrowed money under the Paycheck Protection Program of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which allows small businesses to cover up to eight weeks of payroll with the loans forgiven if they do not lay off employees.
More than 18,400 Connecticut businesses won funding in the first round of PPP, giving them until mid-June to assess their cash flow before deciding whether to retain their full staff or lay off some workers - which would leave them liable for paying back a portion of those loans.
“We believe that limited, safe indoor dining is possible,” said the business owners in the letter to the governor. “As malls, hair salons and others are allowed to gradually begin indoor service, as they should be, it makes sense restaurants would also be allowed some limited indoor service.”
“It’s absolutely true that restaurants, like every type of business, present unique challenges,” Dolch added. “Simply put, this will be a very different dining experience from what anyone is used to in the past.”