When Governor Ned Lamont ordered doors closed for in-house dining and drinking establishments on March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was not great timing for Darien’s Chéz Ernie’s.

The historical Tokeneke Road watering hole would have had one of its biggest business days the following day — St. Patrick’s Day.

Since then, according to long-time bartender Sacha Amereno, Ernie’s bartenders are doing the best they can, but unemployment only pays them what they made in hourly wages. A bulk of what the bartenders make is in tips. A GoFundMe has since been established to supplement their income.

To donate to the Chez Ernie's GoFundMe, Go here.

Other Darien drinking and dining establishments have tried to change their business approach by offering take out, curbside pick up or even delivery. Ernie’s, or Chéz Ernie’s, as it was renamed upon re-opening after a brief closure in 2015, is in the unfortunate position of not serving food.

This left little option for owner Steve Palmer but to close its doors until the order by Lamont is lifted — and with schools just ordered closed by the governor another month, until May 20, the end of this order is uncertain.

Palmer said he supports the bartenders’ “outreach to their customer friends as unemployment compensation won't come close to meeting their normal pay.”

“As an open ended shutdown, I'm sure the uncertainty is just as great a toll as the lack of income,” Palmer said.

It was that uncertainty that prompted Amereno to launch the GoFundMe on April 8. So far, it has raised $450 of the goal of $12,000.

“Unfortunately, when we do not work, we don’t have any income. Any support is appreciated and will be equally divided among each bartender. Sacha, Joe, Ashleigh, Kristin, Sharon, and Viktoria thank you for always being so good to us and we hope to return to work soon,” Amereno wrote in the GoFundMe.

She told The Darien Times that all of the bartenders at Chéz Ernie’s have been there a “long time” and their customers are more like family.

The town’s school campuses and town and school playgrounds are closed to the public. Parking lots for beaches and parks are closed to vehicles. And many other organizations, like the Darien Library, Darien Community Association, and the Darien Historical Society have been closed for weeks. Town Hall is closed to in person transactions and the Darien Police Department has asked residents to conduct business by phone. As Easter approaches Sunday, Darien churches are holding virtual services and no in-person worship is being held.

Historical significance

At the time of the bar’s reopening in 2015, town history expert Ken Weiss talked to The Darien Times about the significance of Ernie's.

"The histories of places like Ernie's often take on a romantic tinge, so I've never known what the real story was," he said.

"I do know that it has been around a long time, and the 1933 date can't be far off. I have also heard that the bar in Ernie's had originally been in the 1880s Tooker House Hotel (now the big square building where Heights Pizza is)," he said.

"The Tooker House bar was closed by the state police during Prohibition, (before there was Darien Police force,) and I don't think the hotel survived very long after that," Weiss said.

"For years, the boys would set the lamp to swinging as eastbound trains pulled out of Darien station, and the locomotive engineers would respond with a couple of friendly toots on the horn," he said.

Ernie’s is a popular place for Darien High Class reunions and old friends returning home for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. It is also popular for a stop after getting off the train as Darien Train Station is steps away. Recently, a customer asked to hold his rehearsal dinner after party there because he met his wife in the bar.

Small businesses struggle

At nearly 100 years old, Chéz Ernie’s is one of the town’s oldest running establishments. Other long-time businesses are also struggling. A GoFundMe for employees of the decades-old Sugar Bowl Luncheonette, forced to close its doors during the pandemic, has raised now close to $30,000.

“Customers there aren’t just customers for us,” Amereno said. She added that some long-time Ernie’s regulars have checked in on her to make sure she’s doing all right.

“They are like our friends — we really appreciate the friendships that have grown there. Hopefully we will all get through this and be able to open again soon!” she said.

For updates on Chéz Ernie’s status, visit its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ChezErniesCafe/.