Middletown Makes Room for Restaurants to Reopen

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On May 20 some Connecticut businesses, including restaurants, may start to reopen.

Friday, they expected to get guidance from Gov. Ned Lamont on what they’ll need to do to safely welcome back customers.  However, preparations were already underway in Middletown.

The owner of Luce Restaurant and Bar called the COVID-19 crisis a “smack in the face,” to his business.

“Devastating.  It’s been horrible,” said Sammy Vajraktaredic.

Vajraktaredic usually puts tables outside his restaurant but following social distancing guidelines, he estimates he'll only have room for five tables.

“This is the northeast.  If the weather turns out to be bad we have to shut down,” said Vajraktaredic.

Friday, he said he was waiting for permission to put a tent up in his parking lot with a bar and seating for 40 people. 

It’s been unclear whether zoning issues like that will be left up to the city or the state. 

“It will subject to local zoning. I think they have authority over that,” Lamont said on Thursday.

Two weeks prior, his reopening team indicated statewide executive orders would supersede local ordinances. 

“We’re still mostly waiting for guidance from the state,” said Middletown’s Mayor Ben Florsheim (D). “Right now, we’re operating on the assumption that something is changing on the 20th.”

Florsheim recalled other instances when municipalities needed clarification on the enforcement of Lamont's executive orders and said that the state is working with cities and towns to provide that clarity.

“At the pace that we’re trying to stay on top of this thing we are all working on this together one day at a time," he noted.

The changes include disposable menus, plastic place settings, and plates.

“You think about on my menu you have a steak for two, 36 oz.  What kind of plate is going to hold that?” Vajraktaredic asked.

All of those extra disposable items are also an expense that business owners will have to eat.

“How am I going to absorb that cost and how am I going to pass that onto anybody,” said Vajraktaredic, estimating that it will cost his business thousands of dollars to buy disposable items. “Depends on how much business I do.  The more business I do it’s going to escalate.”

It’s a tough pill to swallow for those working on the slimmest of margins.

“We’re going to have to bring on more of the staff and if the business isn’t there we probably will lose more money,” Marisa Bramato, the owner of Esca Restaurant and Wine Bar said.

Florsheim said the city is considering closing some side streets downtown to give restaurants with narrow sidewalks space to put out more tables.

“We’re trying, just like everything else to think outside the box,” he said.

The city is also starting a million-dollar loan and grant program to make the new requirements more palatable. 

“I know it’s been heartbreaking for a lot of these business owners,” said Florsheim.

However, restaurant operators say there’s only one way to get back in the black.

“We’re really not going to be making any money at all until we are open inside and are able to get our customers back inside,” said Bramato.

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