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Region's advisory board members know ups, downs of restaurant, casino businesses

Few sectors of the U.S. economy have been more decimated by the coronavirus pandemic than restaurants and casinos, a circumstance that’s also true of southeastern Connecticut’s economy.

Meet the region’s representatives to the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, the panel formed to counsel Gov. Ned Lamont and state legislative leaders as they formulate plans to reopen businesses and schools: Dan Meiser, the Mystic restaurateur who chairs the board of directors of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, and Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Named to the group's Business Committee, both men know full well the effect of Lamont’s mid-March shutdown of nonessential businesses, which has since been extended to May 20.

“It’s no secret that when we look at different industries hurt by this crisis, restaurants top the list. That’s not really up for debate,” said Meiser, who shut down his Oyster Club restaurant, while two others — Engine Room and Grass & Bone — continue to provide takeout service. “Our sales are down almost 90% this year compared to the same date last year.”

Nationally, he said, the restaurant industry lost $30 billion in revenue in March and has so far lost $50 billion in April. Losses for 2020 are on track to reach $240 billion.

Given that most restaurants are “mom-and-pop” operations — small businesses that support other small businesses, farmers and fishermen — their reopening is critical to jump-starting the economy, Meiser said.

“I’d love to think our group can work swiftly, and can come up with a date (for restaurants to reopen) that’s in line with whatever the medical people say and that’s sooner than May 20, if possible,” he said.

Meiser noted that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has said her “stay at home” order will remain in place until May 8, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo most recently has extended his shutdown of nonessential businesses to May 15.

“If a restaurant in Westerly can be open as early as May 8 or May 10, it’s safe to say it’ll be busy with people from all over southeastern Connecticut. And the same will be true, but amplified, down in Fairfield County, if New York restaurants open earlier than those in Connecticut,” Meiser said. “It’s really important that these governors work together to coordinate things.”

He said that when restaurants reopen, they’ll be different.

“Based on what I’ve seen in other states and from the National Restaurant Association, there’s likely to be guidelines on social distancing, with additional space between tables. Restaurant staffs are going to be using PPE — masks and gloves. It’s reasonable to think you’re going to see real specific protocols on sanitizing and cleaning,” he said.

Seating capacities at bars and restaurants likely will be reduced, at least at first.

“No question in the early days of reopening fewer people will be allowed in bars and restaurants,” he said. “You’re not going to start off with people shoulder to shoulder, or standing at bars. It’s going to take a while to accomplish that.”

Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, wouldn’t hazard a guess about when the casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — will reopen.

“We’ve said all along that it will depend on the medical professionals, so we haven’t set a certain date,” he said. “But we’ve been working on what reopening will look like. We’ve talked to our counterparts in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore about what the best practices are. There’s going to be social distancing, which we were doing before we closed. We’re talking about temperature checks for employees and face masks for employees and patrons. As a 24-hour business, we were already pretty diligent about cleaning ...”

Foxwoods has been trying to stockpile hand sanitizer but has found it hard to come by.

Space is one thing Foxwoods has in abundance, Butler said, referring to the casino’s 9 million square feet. Separating slot machines and limiting the number of seats at tables won’t be a problem.

The casinos likely will reopen in phases.

“From a health and financial perspective, people are not going to dash back to the casinos,” Butler said. “It’s going to take time for people to feel confident again. We haven’t really identified how that phasing's going to work.”

He said the shutdown’s financial toll has been “crushing.”

In addition to providing more than 5,000 jobs, Foxwoods generates the revenue that helps support hundreds of vendors as well as the tribe’s 1,100 members and their reservation. The Mashantuckets and other federally recognized Indian tribes are seeking shares of the $8 billion in federal relief money the federal government has set aside for them.

“Everybody wants to open sooner rather than later,” Butler said. “But I’m no doctor. I can’t tell you when it’s going to be safe to not wear a mask or to be in groups of more than five or 10, or distance 3 feet instead of 6. That’s up to the medical experts.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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