Relief efforts underway for CT restaurants, but still a long way to go

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By Car­son Swick
March 23, 2021
Newswrit­ing II, Uni­ver­si­ty of Connecticut

STORRS — Though there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tun­nel, the fate of many Con­necti­cut restau­rants hangs in the balance.

Since Gov. Ned Lam­ont first imposed capac­i­ty restric­tions more than a year ago, restau­rants across the state have had to cope with mas­sive rev­enue loss­es. By Novem­ber, such loss­es had proven to be the end of the road for over 600 restau­rants, accord­ing to The Hart­ford Courant.

As that num­ber con­tin­ues to climb, the demand for relief is greater than ever. On Thurs­day, March 11, Pres­i­dent Joe Biden signed the Restau­rant Revi­tal­iza­tion Fund, free­ing up $28.6 bil­lion in fed­er­al grants for restau­rant oper­a­tors across the country.

“[The Restau­rant Revi­tal­iza­tion Fund] is a large sum of mon­ey that will be giv­en as grants to not just restau­rants, but cater­ers and small, pri­vate enter­tain­ment venues who we also rep­re­sent as part of our asso­ci­a­tion,” said Emi­ly Garfinkel, oper­a­tions assis­tant of the Con­necti­cut Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion (CRA) in a phone inter­view. “That is a real­ly big feat; it is the biggest grant we’ve seen yet in this pandemic.”

 

The Restau­rant Revi­tal­iza­tion Fund secures fund­ing for the state’s strained ser­vice indus­try, and it comes at a time to com­ple­ment CRA ini­tia­tives like the Restau­rant Relief Fund. Accord­ing to Garfinkel, the Restau­rant Relief Fund — which was launched in Jan­u­ary — is financed by both Door­Dash and pri­vate donors. As of Wednes­day, March 10, the ini­tia­tive has award­ed $5,000 grants to 92 restau­rants statewide.

“We received at least 900 appli­ca­tions from restau­rants through­out the state, includ­ing ice cream shops, cof­fee shops, frozen yogurt stands, [and] food trucks,” said Garfinkel. “The asso­ci­a­tion and our edu­ca­tion­al board went through and ver­i­fied the applications.”

All the restau­rant own­ers who applied for Restau­rant Relief Fund grants were in need, but Garfinkel not­ed that the CRA was forced to make dif­fi­cult con­sid­er­a­tions in award­ing the grant money.

“Some of the [grants], we want­ed to go to restau­rants who were clear­ly in need, but also that showed they were going to pros­per — or least come out of the pan­dem­ic all right — as opposed to bal­anc­ing it with ones who seem that they are about to close, and $5,000 wouldn’t do it for them any­way,” she said.

The $5,000 grants award­ed by the Restau­rant Relief Fund dif­fer from last year’s fed­er­al small busi­ness loans, as the mon­ey goes direct­ly to busi­ness own­ers instead of man­dat­ing pay­roll con­tri­bu­tions for restau­rant employees.

But even with the wide­spread avail­abil­i­ty of both fed­er­al and state aid, Con­necti­cut restau­rants are grap­pling with a much big­ger prob­lem: the lack of con­sumer con­fi­dence. A Jan. 11 Morn­ing Con­sult poll showed that only 36% of all Amer­i­can adults feel com­fort­able going out to eat — a 6% decrease from the 42% of peo­ple who said they would dine out back in October.

Den­nis Demos, the gen­er­al man­ag­er of Ver­non Din­er, locat­ed just off Inter­state 84 in Ver­non, said that his restau­rant has been plagued by this decline in con­sumer confidence.

“There [are] a lot of peo­ple that call for take­out who want curb­side pick­up; they’re too scared to go inside,” Demos said in a phone inter­view. We san­i­tize every­thing, we have san­i­tiz­ers every 10 feet and we do our best to keep the place as safe and clean as pos­si­ble. But at the end of the day, a lot of cus­tomers are still scared to go in and dine-in. That’s why we have delivery.”

Accord­ing to Demos, the win­ter months were the tough­est of the pan­dem­ic for Ver­non Din­er, as the out­door patio closed and the statewide spike in COVID-19 cas­es deterred many cus­tomers from din­ing in. Still, the diner’s intro­duc­tion of food deliv­ery via Grub­Hub and Door­Dash last sum­mer has allowed it to remain open and prof­itable. But oth­er restau­rants, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in Connecticut’s more dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas, have not been so fortunate.

“The biggest impact has been in our urban areas: Hart­ford, New Haven, Stam­ford,” Garfinkel said. It sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive, because there are more poten­tial cus­tomers. But we think a lot of that is due to people’s nerves about being exposed to the virus.”

Lamont’s loos­ened COVID-19 capac­i­ty restric­tions, which allow restau­rants to oper­ate at 100% capac­i­ty, went into effect last Fri­day. But since the reopen­ing, Connecticut’s most recent sev­en-day pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate sits at 3.3% — the high­est since ear­ly Feb­ru­ary — accord­ing to The Hart­ford Courant. Giv­en the tran­si­tion to increased capac­i­ty and the state’s impend­ing vac­cine roll­out next month, restau­rants remain cau­tious­ly opti­mistic about the future.

“I think the fact that we’re going to 100% [capac­i­ty] is gonna give the con­sumers a lit­tle bit of relief, but I feel like they’re still gonna be scared,” Demos said. “I don’t think we’re gonna be packed right away. In the sum­mer­time is when it’s gonna open; when the nice weath­er comes, everyone’s gonna want to sit out­side. That’s what I real­ly think — I don’t think the 100% [capac­i­ty] is real­ly gonna do much right away.”

 

Inter­views con­duct­ed: March 10 with Emi­ly Garfinkel, (860) 276‑7209; March 18 with Den­nis Demos, (860) 875‑8812