Restaurant owners in Norwich have spent the last two months changing the way they conduct business. The coronavirus shutdowns have prompted layoffs, takeout only meals and contactless delivery.
As the state is now entering a phase of reopening, the restaurant owners are working to conquer a new challenge: how to set up outdoor dining for the first time.
"We are going to try it," said Justin Burrows, owner of La Stella Pizzeria in Downtown Norwich. "We are going to see how we can execute it."
Norwich Community Development Corporation (NCDC), the city's economic development agency, has been working alongside city leaders to help restaurants navigate reopening challenges in a city that is not known for outdoor dining.
"We have not been, so maybe this is the chance to become something that we have never been," said Jason Vincent, senior vice president of NCDC.
Vincent said that NCDC has been contacting small business owners throughout the pandemic, connecting them to resources and helping to answer any questions.
When Gov. Ned Lamont announced that a potential first phase reopening on May 20 would allow restaurants to open for outdoor dining only, NCDC formed a task force with other city leaders to determine how the city can help local restaurants reopen.
"What we tried to do is think about, if a business were to create outdoor dining, who are the different city officials they have to interface with?" explained Vincent. "Is it going to block a fire truck, for example, is it going to concern the health department? We need to look at all of the different attributes of the idea."
Vincent has been meeting with individual business owners, helping them create a plan, and answering the question: how can the city help?
"Businesses that don't have outdoor dining today don't have picnic tables or seating, so that is a barrier. They may not have umbrellas. So, what are the things that we might be able to do, some of the assets we might have to just temporarily position them to help the business community," said Vincent.
After meeting with Vincent, La Stella Pizzeria determined a way to make outdoor seating available for 28 people using room on their sidewalk. The city is also letting them use some of the parking space on the side of their building.
"We are going to try it," said Burrows. "A lot of my staff just wants to work."
Mayor Peter Nystrom said that city departments are hoping to make it as easy as possible for businesses to reopen safely, working to expedite any permits. He said that the city will provide barriers to block off dining areas where necessary.
"We are assessing where city land can be utilized if it is adjacent to the business or even a portion of a road," said Nystrom. "We are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to jumpstart the economy here locally, bring some vibrancy back to downtown."
Nystrom said that the city has taken an economic hit during the pandemic, making it even more important to help small businesses reopen safely if they are able to.
"We need them to be operational," said Nystrom, explaining the significance small businesses have on the local economy.
"The small business community is the core of our economic development program," added Vincent.
The city has given permission to These Guys Brewing Company to use an entire public parking lot for outdoor dining. Rebecca Alberts, co-owner of the restaurant, said that the city has been helpful in planning for a reopening. She said that there will be 12 socially distanced tables in the parking lot. The staff is creating special outdoor drink and food menus.
Alberts described the last two months as "devastating." She said that she has had to send home a large portion of her staff. They have lost about 80 percent of their business.
While she is only expecting they will gain back about 25 percent with outdoor dining, she is hoping that it will help bring back some sense of normalcy.
"I would just say that we are all trying to do our best. The kinder and more understanding that people are, the better it will be for everybody," said Alberts.
NCDC has created a Facebook page with information on COVID-19 business resources.