Phase 1: Restrictions Ease for Outdoor Dining

by Christopher O'Brien

Apprehension hung in the air like the string of light bulbs Nick Santopietro hung over a newly installed outdoor dining area at Vito’s Pizzeria on Meriden Road Tuesday evening. His restaurant joined others as part of the State’s Phase 1 reopening plan as state officials eased restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“Businesses have faced some challenges and it would be good to have them at full capacity as well as all of their employees back to work as long as everyone is safe,” the town’s Economic Development Coordinator, Patrick McKinney tells the Whisper.


“We’ve been suffering for 9 weeks. Business is down 85%”


New distancing rules and changes to existing spaces brought a transformation in a community where only two restaurants previously had outdoor patios. “We communicated with town leaders, zoning, Fire Marshall and building inspectors that we needed to work together to have this happen,” said Chesprocott Health Director Maura Esposito. “We essentially had a week”, said economic Development Coordinator, Patrick McKinney.  Establishments submitted floor plans to ensure social distancing requirements were met. Chesprocott delivered surgical masks, signage and visited each site to assist owners in meeting the new setbacks. “We fielded calls all week not only from these owners, but many more who want to open,” said Esposito.

 

Wolcott Public Works maneuver a concrete partition to allow for outdoor seating at McBride’s Restaurant on Tuesday.

“The plan included providing concrete barriers free of charge to businesses,” that didn’t previously have an outdoor seating area, says McKinney. These provide a safety barrier. As far as he knew, every applicant for a temporary outdoor permit was approved. Pool Water Pat’s provided the barriers to the town, which in turn are being provided to restaurants for free.

The decision whether to open has been a difficult for many. While some restaurants took any business they could with curbside pickup and deliveries, the Hangry Fork on North Street decided to remain closed for now. “Having a few tables outside does not justify the cost. I’m hoping to do outside when we can open at half capacity inside, too” says owner Michelle Dube.

Subway re-opened for take-out orders on May 20th

Governor Lamont says he hopes June 20th may be that next benchmark for increasing restaurant capacity if coronavirus metrics continue to progress. Meanwhile, overhead costs for rent, utilities, and insurance continue to hamper businesses of all kinds. Stock, food and payroll costs may further outweigh any income brought in until the next phase of reopening.

Investing in tables, chairs, disinfectant, barriers, masks, and other modifications have run into the thousands of dollars, one owner tells the Whisper. A stormy day like Saturday’s downpours isn’t likely to invite many customers, but Bill & Sam’s and McBrides have set up canopies hoping it’ll be enough to sustain a passing shower.

Bill Kiziam is ready to cook up breakfast, lunch and dinner, to-go, or outside his Wolcott Rd. diner.

The added expense is worth it to Bill & Sam’s diner in the center of town. “They’re trying. The town is taking care of the taxpayers,” says owner Bill Kiazim who’s been serving up crispy hashbrowns, omelets, pancakes breakfast sandwiches and a full lunch menu since 1970. “We’ve been suffering for 9 weeks. Business is down 85%,”

With five additional outdoor tables, he thinks he can almost balance out the social distancing losses when he can open up the inside seating in a month or so. “If we’re only allowed 50% of our 70 seats inside, then put about 15-20 people outside, it almost balances out.”

Restaurants throughout Connecticut have been closed since March 16th. Gov. Lamont coordinated the closure on the day before St. Patrick’s Day to “prevent people from going across the border and then bringing the virus back”. At the time, northeastern states concentrated on containing the handful of virus cases, but it quickly got out of hand with thousands of infections within a few weeks.

The shutdown’s timing hurt McBride’s Restaurant. “We did alright foodwise (with pickup), but St. Patrick’s Day is (traditionally) a really big day for us,” says owner Mark Monnerat Jr told the Whisper as he watched public works crews maneuver cement partitions in his parking lot. Four picnic tables and four canopies spaced apart were erected before opening on Wednesday. “Hopefully this will stimulate my business a little.”

Just up the road at La Fortuna, Marco Paoletto was reviewing the three pages of rules issued by the state and signage delivered by Chesproccott. “Business has been good,” he says. “The locals have been really supportive” during the past two months. The popular restaurant has been in business for twenty years. “We were going to start doing dinner anyway, and now we might start that earlier.” He says they may stay open until around 8:00 pm. While he was ready to set up 4 tables outside facing busy Route 69, he conceded “I’m still not sure how we’re going to do the inside” when the state opens up for indoor seating.

Health regulations require all employees to wear masks, and food to be served in disposable containers. A waitress at Bill & Sam’s demonstrated that plasticware has to be folded into a napkin. “Everything has to be sanitized in between customers,” says Kiazim. “We have to go behind them to sanitize the bathroom if someone uses it.”

Vito’s Pizzeria’s outdoor setup is really a take-out option to sit on site. But with this weekend’s warm start, who could resist? “We’ll have paper dishes.” When asked if outdoor seating could be a permanent feature in the future, Santopietro was cautious. “We don’t know how its going to be. We’ll play it by ear.” The Italian restaurant typically does a lot of sit-down business where patrons can also enjoy beer and wine.

The restaurants are ready for customers. But after eight Wolcott residents died and nearly 100 have been infected so far from COVID-19, its anybody’s guess if the residents are. That question hangs in the air like a Vito’s lightbulbs.

“Maybe people are still anxious to go out. Or maybe hey can’t wait to go out,” said Kiazim.

“We want to thank the town. They brought the barriers and its helped us out immensely. We want to thank the Mayor for this,” says Santopietro.”

Bill & Sam’s Diner

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