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Summer becomes survival season for these businesses

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In normal times, the schooner Argia would be in the water in Mystic, offering day cruises since the season began May 1. The year-round staff of Argia Mystic Cruises spent the winter sanding and painting and varnishing, and other than a last little bit of painting and rigging up the boat, captain and general manager Amy Blumberg said Argia is ready to go.

But the boat sits in a boatyard and won't return to the dock until the end of May.

Even then, as is the case for other seasonal businesses, it's unclear when Argia can start accepting customers and what the summer will hold due to the pandemic. But Blumberg feels "tremendously lucky" to be living in a state where the governor is communicating well, and she has been comfortable with his advice.

She thinks it makes the most sense for people to book July 1 or later, or they can buy gift cards now.

The ship ordinarily carries 50 passengers at a time and has three to four trips a day, but Blumberg expects to cut capacity to a quarter or half.

"My biggest goal this year is simply continuity of business, just keep our business running, even though it's not going to be in any way profitable," Blumberg said.

She said it's possible that lower capacity and fewer tourists this summer will "line up well and make it a bit smoother." But she noted that Mystic has always done well with day-tripping, and while visitors from other states and Europe may be down, Connecticut residents who may have been planning trips to other states or Europe might end up in Mystic.

Blumberg said for seasonal businesses like hers, it's necessary to have "careful, careful planning to get to the other side of this," because unlike with many year-round businesses, cash flow is a bell curve. And she expects things to "get back to normal" in the off-season.

In Niantic, Blackhawk Sport Fishing usually has a longer season and runs from mid-April to mid-January. April would've been the time for cod fishing and now customers would be catching porgy, which are ample in the waters this year.

"There's not a lot of money in it to begin with, and to lose what we're losing is just devastating," owner and captain Greg Dubrule said. "I've got 10 employees, and I've been trying to carry them through the winter on doing boat work and everything, and usually at this time of year we're already fishing, and we've got more than enough business. The phone's ringing off the freakin' wall. People want to go."

Dubrule is planning to start fishing May 20, per the generic guidance from Gov. Ned Lamont's task force that outdoor recreation can reopen on that date.

The captain said he will go from averaging 60 customers a day to 21, adhere to the 6-foot rule on the 75-foot boat, have customers wear masks, and bleach down the boat between every trip using his stockpile of commercial bleach.

"I'm not trying to make a million dollars," said Dubrule, who's been in the fishing business for 53 years. "I'm just trying to survive, that's all I'm trying to do, in an industry I've loved all my life."

As for Block Island ferry service from New London, Block Island Express this past week removed the message from its website that service would begin May 22.

The website instead reads, "Block Island Express is awaiting guidance from island officials before we announce a start date for this season. We will have appropriate safety measures in place upon resumption of service."

We all scream for socially distant ice cream

In the Sound View community in Old Lyme, The Carousel Shop would be open on weekends starting Memorial Day and then every day after schools get out. But co-owner Jen Lathrop said while the ice cream shop will open in the beginning of June, everything else is on hold.

That includes the general beach store with things like floats and beach chairs, the clothing store with high-end boutique items and Old Lyme branded sweatshirts, and the actual carousel, which typically runs evenings from 7 to 9.

Lathrop works as a third grade teacher in Montville but The Carousel Shop is the livelihood for her parents, owners Dee and Jerry Vowles, hence why she wanted to get ice cream up and running.

"We need to open for the Sound View community, too," Lathrop said. "We've been there for over 30 years and everybody knows us, and I feel like if we were to be closed, it would be disheartening."

Sound View Beach is closed indefinitely, and The Carousel Shop will take a hit if the beaches remain closed and therefore don't get the usual high day traffic from the Hartford area, Lathrop said.

She said the bulk of nighttime business comes from the renters, and some of her friends who rent out their properties say a lot of their usual customers are dropping out. But Lathrop said the clothing store has started to get an in-town following in recent years, and she's hoping for the best.

"I hope the kids can have a good summer," she said. "I hope they can come to the beach and do things outside and get ice cream and go on a carousel. They need it."

In Niantic, Tony D's Craft Creamery opened for the season April 25, and owner Tony D'Angelo said Friday, "it's been really busy. It's been crazy." This is the first year the ice cream shop is doing only cold treats and not hot food, and D'Angelo thinks people are excited to get out.

He didn't sound particularly worried about a slower tourist season in Niantic, saying the ice cream shop has a strong local base.

The ordering windows that are open are spaced out, X's are taped on the turf in front to indicate where people waiting to order should stand, and staff wear masks. But D'Angelo said lots of customers aren't wearing masks.

Tony D's is one of many local places about which somebody has submitted a complaint over social distancing or mask-wearing with Ledge Light Health District, and D'Angelo said Ledge Light called but was understanding.

Steve Mansfield, director of health for Ledge Light, told The Day on Thursday businesses usually "are doing their best to try to comply with the governor's mandates, and we understand the fact that it is hard to control the public."

A sanitarian or environmental technician will be assigned to a complaint to provide education on how to promote social distancing, but Ledge Light has no enforcement power. Mansfield said if a business is unable to comply or Ledge Light gets a repeated complaint, they're referred to the local police department for follow-up.

"We get complaints about people not adhering to social distancing guidelines and the mask mandate daily," Mansfield said. "We get a lot of them, and usually they're centered around places that are popular takeout establishments that are open and busy, especially on the weekends."

A spreadsheet Mansfield sent shows the health district has received 55 complaints about 45 places between March 19 and May 7; the only one to get as many as three complaints was the Walmart Supercenter in Waterford.

The complaints span a variety of businesses: big-box retailers, corporate grocery chains, family-owned grocers, gas station convenience stores, chain coffee shops, pizza places, fast-food joints, independent year-round restaurants, ice cream shops and seasonal seafood spots.

e.moser@theday.com

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