Restaurants Reopen, Customers Cautious

May 20 marked Connecticut’s first reopening phase, as restaurants partially reopened around the state for the first time since closing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Meg Sautter and her group of friends were the first to line up to dine out at the Rooster Company in Newington Wednesday. 

“I love this place.  We’ve been dying since they closed,” said Sautter, of Newington.

The restaurant's chef-owner, KC Ward, said he missed the bustle around his business for the last two months.

“There’s been that element that’s just been missing that I’m just so eager to get back to,” Ward explained.

Tim Jorel, the owner of TJ’s on Cedar in Newington, said he caters to the work crowd at lunch, so he only served six tables Wednesday.  However, he added that he had 15 reservations for dinner.

“A lot of people aren't quite back to work full bore in the Center here, so by tonight with those 15 reservations and other people calling, I expect to have pretty decent business outside tonight,” he said, adding that he will likely go to reservations-only for dinner over the weekend.

From turning their parking lots into patios to setting tables on front lawns, restaurants have found space to replicate the inside dining experience outside.

“So far, it wasn’t so much different,” said Brendan Lynch, a small business owner from Newington who dined at Rooster Co. on Wednesday because he said he wanted to support other local businesses.

Consumer confidence is still a question on Ward's mind.

“Fifty percent of the people in this area are just chomping at the bit," he said. "I acknowledge there’s another 50 percent that I think you know their safety and security has really been eroded.”

Extra Precautions Required to Keep Customers Safe

Restaurants must use disposable silverware, plates, napkins, and menus.  Even the pens used to sign receipts have to be sanitized. 

Restaurant employees are required to wear masks and gloves.  Restaurants must also hire a bathroom bouncer whose sole purpose is to supervise and clean the restrooms after each use.

“Our bathrooms are smaller.  So, we can only allow one person in at a time as per the social distancing requirements and then when that person leaves the bathroom it then has to recleaned and sanitized,” explained Cheryl Moran, owner of Anthony Jack’s and Tavern 42 in Southington.

Anthony Jack's looked like a grocery store, with arrows pointing people to the bathrooms and the exit.

Moran said there was only one way in and one way out of her restaurant due to social distancing guidelines.

It was the same at Rooster Co., which meant customers who wanted to use the bathroom had to leave through the back door and walk around the building to the patio in the front.

“It’s not easy yet.  It’s not easy on the customer.  It’s not easy on us,” said Ward.

Signs are on walls at both restaurants reminding customers to use hand sanitizer and wear a mask when they are not seated at their table.

 “The establishments themselves have a role in making sure people do the right thing,” said Charles Brown, Central Connecticut Health District director of health.

Customers don’t have to wear a mask at the table but Sonia Alvelo of Newington told NBC Connecticut that she felt more comfortable doing so.

“I’m nervous, but I’ve got to get back to some type of normal,” said Alvelo.

It’s a new normal, but one that these customers are welcoming.

“We’re just very excited to be back,” said Sautter.

“We’ve been doing a lot of takeout from them but it’s just not the same," said Meg Sautter of Newington. She was first in line to sit outside Rooster Company and have lunch on Wednesday.

Some Owners Still Wary Of Outdoor Dining

Vincent Placeres, who owns the MofongGo restaurants in Hartford and New Britain was on a fact-finding mission Wednesday.

“We’re trying to stop by different restaurants and kind of seeing how they’re doing it,” he explained while dining at Rooster Co.

Placeres said he was weighing whether it’s worth it to put diners out on a patio.

“I’m not 100 percent sold on it yet,” he said.

With the Connecticut Restaurant Association asking the state to reopen inside dining in two weeks, Placeres said he might just wait it out.

“There’s no point adding all of the additional cost and headache of trying to get a patio established that wasn’t already there before,” he added.

Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont said indoor dining wouldn’t happen until at least the second phase of the state’s reopening plan, set for June 20.

It’s a decision Matthew Crowley, who owns two Main Street restaurants in Newington, GoldBurgers and Five and Dime, said he’s likely made.

“I just feel like that’s going to make the customers who are already engaging in takeout businesses with us to feel less comfortable walking through groups of people eating in front of the business,” said Crowley pointing to the small space available for tables outside his fast-casual establishments.

Brown said just six Newington restaurants have applied for an outdoor license.  A dozen others already had one.

“I think it’s going to be more of a slow roll out than what we had anticipated,” said Brown.

Newington’s town manager said there’s talk of turning Market Square, which is just off of Main Street, into an outdoor food court.  He said officials were planning to meet virtually Wednesday night to discuss the issue further.

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