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New Haven restaurateurs ready to enforce mask mandates, but some are leery of response

A new mask mandate for indoor spaces goes into effect in New Haven on Monday, but this time the order is local, not statewide. For the time being, the mask order is limited to New Haven only.

Some Elm City restaurateurs see this return to the old new normal as disagreeable but necessary, as COVID positivity rates climb. Others dread the impact that the mandate will have on their businesses.
“I have very mixed feelings about it. We want to do what’s right. We’re already asking guests to be wearing them and the majority of our guests want that. But there are people who are very reluctant to do that and do not want it,” said Alison deRenzi, owner/manager of L’Orcio restaurant.
“I am not looking forward to tangling with people again. We are put in the position of police officers and that is not a nice dynamic. … People jump ugly with you,” she said.
With COVID-19 infections on the upsurge, driven greatly by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, Gov. Ned Lamont this week announced he would not implement an indoor mask mandate statewide, leaving regulations up to individual municipalities.
Justin Elicker of New Haven was the first mayor to take up the duty, instituting a mask mandate effective Monday. Currently, New Haven County is Connecticut’s only county designated as high transmission.
Other towns have been more hesitant to go all in on masks. On Friday. West Hartford called on residents to “once again mask up when indoors.” Mayor Shari Cantor stopped short of a mask mandate, “strongly urging that all local businesses require universal masking for both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons at all indoor establishments.”
Claire Criscuolo, owner of the vegetarian hotspot Claire’s Corner Copia, knew last week that a mandate was coming back, as soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested wearing masks again at indoor gathering places. So she prepared for the inevitable.
“We took the sign down that read ‘If you’re fully vaccinated, we’d love to see your smile again’ and replaced it with ‘So sorry, please put masks on for a while’,” she said. “We figured we’d roll it in slowly.
“Most customers come in wearing masks. To others, we say ‘Do you have a mask, we’d appreciate if you’d wear it.’ Some are horrified and say of course. Others say ‘I don’t have one’ and we say ‘Bring one next time, we’d appreciate it’,” Criscuolo said. “That will help to get them back into it.”
Donna Curran, manager of ZINC, said she welcomes the mask mandate because “it’s just way too loosey goosey, not knowing who is vaccinated.
“Short of asking anyone who makes a reservation, like Danny Meyer does, to show a vaccination card, it’s the only way to go. Masks are a tool to keep people safe,” Curran said.
Last week, New York-Washington D.C. restaurateur Meyer announced that in order to be seated at any of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants, diners must show proof of vaccination. Other restaurant groups around the country also instituted vaccination proof mandates and New York City on Tuesday became the first U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining, gyms and performances.
Curran said customers should be masked if all employees are masked, which they are at ZINC.
“All of us wear masks. The kitchen staff works eight to nine hours in a 120-degree kitchen with masks on. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask people, in light of what is happening, which we all wish wasn’t happening around us, to just wear a mask. It’s not that hard,” she said.
Bruno Baggetta, spokesman for Market New Haven, a promotional initiative for dining, shopping, entertainment, arts and events in the city, said restaurateurs he has spoken with about masks are “ready and willing to do whatever it takes to get us safely back to where we need to be.”
He suggested that people who don’t want to mask up indoors make an outdoor reservation.
“There’s an abundance of outdoor seating throughout downtown and the city. Call ahead, make a reservation, secure an outdoor table and be mindful,” Baggetta said. “For me it’s about mindfulness. We’ve all been through this for 17 months. We now know how to navigate this.”
Curran said one advantage of a mandate is that it’s not the restaurant mandating it, it’s the city.
“Having a mandate is another way to say, ‘It’s not us, it’s a mandate’,” she said.
That level playing field only works within the city borders, however. DeRenzi said a statewide mandate would stop mask resisters from just ditching the city and dining in another municipality.
“If it was a state mandate, everyone would be on an equal playing ground. If we are going to be arguing with people, fighting with people, it will dissuade people from coming into New Haven. I’d rather across the board have everybody in same boat,” she said.
Most of the restaurateurs, though, are not anticipating too much trouble.
Sabrina Zheng, manager of New Haven Crab House, agreed. “Before this, customers who were not wearing masks, when they came in, they would see us wearing masks, and they would automatically put masks on,” Zheng said. “They know what to do. I don’t have to push them.”
Criscuolo agreed. “Our customers are awesome. They realize we are in this together and we have to do this,” she said. “I think that it’s important for us to realize we have to get this thing fixed so it doesn’t find a new host opportunity to mutate. We’ve already seen Delta. We don’t want more than that.”


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