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Restaurant owners seeking answers and help

Representatives of the restaurant industry expressed frustration Thursday that only outdoor dining will be allowed beginning May 20 and that Gov. Ned Lamont has not provided enough specifics regarding how they can reopen that day to serve customers outdoors.

They also laid out the many challenges facing restaurants, ranging from polls that show people will be reluctant to return to restaurants and a decrease in supplies of meat, fish and personal protective equipment to how to safely reopen bathrooms and cater events.

During his daily news conference Thursday, Lamont and Chief of Staff Paul Mounds said an executive order will be announced Friday giving cities and towns guidance on how restaurants will be allowed to open for outdoor dining.

Mounds said the executive order would give "full clarity" on the reopening. Lamont said state officials have been working closely with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities on restaurants reopening, but cities and towns will have the local zoning authority on restaurants' plans for outdoor dining.

"We'll adjust, but our concern is that we're going to lose a lot of good, small businesses," said Tony Sheridan, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Sheridan and others took part in a virtual roundtable Thursday to talk about the impact the pandemic has had on the restaurant industry.

Mystic restaurant owner Dan Meiser, who is the board chairman of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and a member of Lamont's reopening task force, said he has been pushing hard to have the state allow restaurants to reopen with indoor dining. He said this can be done safely while protecting the health of employees and customers.

Instead, Meiser said, Lamont has been adamant that only outdoor seating would be allowed, which he said the restaurant association has strong reservations about, in part because many restaurants do not have existing patios, space for outdoor seating or local and state liquor permits to do so.

He said his organization has repeatedly asked for clarity about whether restaurants that have outdoor seating can expand it and if those who don't have it can have it even without a local permit. Meiser said Lamont could allow both with a simple executive order.

Meiser, who owns Oyster Club, Grass & Bone, Engine Room and Stone Acres Farm, said weather is the other factor with outdoor seating. He offered a scenario in which a restaurant schedules staff, orders and prepares food and then it rains after diners arrive. He asked if they would be allowed inside to finish their meal and pay or if restaurants would end up losing a lot of money.

"It's simply not a viable option," he said about outdoor dining.

Meiser stressed that restaurants are better trained in safety and sanitation than any other industry and outlined the many safety protocols that could be taken with indoor dining.

"The idea that this is not a safer alternative than a group of four people walking around Home Depot, touching surfaces and interacting with staff, I don't buy that," he said.

Meiser said the restaurant industry is looking for help because no other industry has been affected as much by COVID-19.

"We know the road to recovery will be a long one," said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

He said he has been inundated with calls from restaurants looking for answers about reopening.

"We are imploring the governor that we can do this with both indoor and outdoor dining," he said.

Meiser said he hopes for more direction from Lamont in the coming days.

Dolch said polls show people do feel comfortable eating outdoors. He said grassy areas and parking lots could be turned into outdoor seating. Meiser said he would like Lamont to issue guidelines for all 169 municipalities to allow outdoor dining as long as it meets the requirements of local fire marshals and health inspectors. Zoning regulations regarding outdoor dining would be suspended for a period of time.

"This is a simple and temporary solution, but it hasn't happened yet," Meiser said. "I'm struggling to figure out why it's not happened at the state level."

He said another option is for Lamont to give each town the ability to suspend local zoning regulations. He said the worst option is to leave it up to each town.

The ripple effect

Alexandra Formica, the director of operations for Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme, said her biggest concern is "how can we keep this incredible industry going into the summer season."

Her sister Olivia, the restaurant's head chef, said her restaurant is trying to support all of their vendors.

"Our biggest supplier is the Boston Fish Pier, where we go to several days a week. If the fishermen don't have the restaurants' support (through purchases), then they won't be fishing and we won't be able to get the product we've been selling for 35, 36 years," she said.

Meiser said the ripple effect of restaurants being closed has a massive impact on the local economy, such as food, beer and liquor suppliers, linen services, trash haulers and gas suppliers, just to name a few.

"The network of businesses reaches into every corner of the state," he said.

And Alexandra Formica pointed out that their employees "have built a life in the restaurant industry" and depend on it to pay their mortgages and send their children to college.

Jon Kodama, the president of JTK Management and owner of three restaurants, said he is looking at the industry as he did after the recession of 2008 when he was not sure his business would survive and he had to do "crazy and creative things to survive" over the long term.

He said a new poll shows that 78 percent of people and employees were not comfortable returning to restaurants at this point.

"I don't think we'll see that confidence for 12 months," he said. "The next 12 months is the key. Unless and until there is trust and confidence on behalf of staff and the public, it will be ugly. I'm not sure how many restaurants will survive this."

Alexandra Formica suggested restaurants have to look at what they can do to "reinvent this culinary industry in this new normal."

Questions from town officials, too

Municipalities also have questions on how they should handle outdoor dining.

In Stonington, which has about 155 eating establishments, First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said this week that the town has been seeking instructions from state officials, the Ledge Light Health District, local fire marshals and police to get clarity about issues such as parking, access for emergency responders, handicapped access and liquor permits.

"We're looking at what we can ease while balancing the safety aspects," she said.

Like Meiser, she also questioned why outside dining would be allowed and not indoor dining with reduced capacity.

"We need to do everything we can to support these businesses and help them survive," said Chesebrough.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday to adopt a series of temporary regulations that that will allow restaurants without outdoor seating permits to have outdoor seating while easing zoning restrictions.

Among the stipulations are that the outdoor areas cannot exceed the number of seats already aproved for the restaurant, and seats can be placed in on-site parking spots with on-site parking requirements temporarily waived. Hours for outdoor seating shall not extend beyond 9 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends, and all noise ordinances must be met. Restaurants can also serve alcoholic beverages if approved by the state Liquor Control Division and local officials.

In Stonington Borough, which has separate zoning regulations from the town, two restaurants have existing outdoor patios, but three others in close proximity on Water Street do not. Warden Jeff Callahan said one idea being considered is to close off a small section of the street two to three nights a week so they can do outdoor dining.

City may close some streets

New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city is looking to remove obstacles for restaurants that don't have outdoor seating.

That is likely to mean issuing patio licenses to allow restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks and perhaps even parking lots, though no final decisions have been made. The city has issued guidance on patio licenses, outdoor cooking and outside service of alcohol.

"You're all going to have different obstacles to overcome to reopen. Some of you have areas to set up for outside dining. If you don't have places to expand, the city is willing to explore creative ideas to try and make room for you," Passero told more than 50 restaurant representatives during a virtual round table Monday.

Some of the restaurant owners, like Daddy Jack's owner Jack Chaplin, pitched ideas that included closing some city side streets to accommodate tables. Daddy Jack's on Bank Street does not have a patio.

"If Daddy Jack's and Noodles & Rice (Bistro) can benefit having part of Pearl Street closed down, the city is ready to do that," Passero said on Thursday.

Office of Development and Planning Director Felix Reyes said the city is asking restaurants to submit ideas and so far has received requests for use of sidewalks, parking spaces and alleyways — all within city rights of way. City departments are working together, he said, to help expedite approvals but are waiting for some direction from the state.

Others asked if there are restrictions on how many people can congregate outside.

Barry Neistat, co-owner of Muddy Waters on Bank Street, asked what happens if four unrelated people want to sit down and have lunch together on his restaurant's deck. The tables may be 6 feet apart, but the patrons will not be.

"Is that not allowed? It would only be a 3-foot distance between them," he said.

Several Norwich restaurant owners peppered city, economic development and health officials during a Thursday afternoon Zoom meeting on preparing for outdoor dining. Restaurateurs asked about use of sidewalks, tents and outdoor liquor permits.

Norwich Community Development Corp. Senior Vice President Jason Vincent said he and city officials have written up a set of guidelines to expedite outdoor dining requests for restaurant owners, but he cautioned that the city must wait for Lamont to release the state's final guidelines.

"The city wants to help you," Vincent said. "We want to come out of this COVID crisis in the best way possible."

Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

j.wojtas@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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