‘We’re just gonna have to hope’: Darien businesses and organizations prepare for phase 3

DARIEN — While the local impact, if any, of phase 3 of Gov. Ned Lamont’s reopening plan is yet to be seen, businesses and organizations in town are hoping it inspires more patrons to venture out and engage.

“We’re just gonna have to hope,” said Robert Mazza, longtime owner of the Sugar Bowl Luncheonette. “I’m hoping that they’re going to come in.”

On Oct. 8 restaurants, hairdressers and some select personal service providers will be allowed to operate with 75 percent capacity, up from 50 percent these past several months.

“I’m maxed out at 50 percent,” Mazza said, noting space and costs have prohibited his ability to create new outdoor space, or to heat the outdoor tables he’s relied on.

Other changes include outdoor venues, including stadium and concerts, which will be allowed up to 50-percent capacity, along with indoor performing arts venues and indoor religious gatherings, which must cap at 200 people.

Mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing remain in place.

As autumn unfolds — and the chance for cold weather becomes more likely — many businesses that have depended on outdoor seating may have to find other options.

“We’re losing our outdoor seating because of the weather,” explained David Nelson, owner of Ten Twenty Post.

Like many others, Nelson has faced challenges, though he has been fortunate to have significant space to spread out customers, as well as an outdoor tent for more options.

“You won’t find a better town to have a restaurant,” he said, noting the community’s support as well.

At the same time, his frustration continues to mount with state legislation he said shouldn’t be dictating the decisions.

“Let the people decide,” he said. “Open it up to 100 percent. That’s the American way.”

Steven Rivieccio of Papa Joe’s said they are preparing for Phase 3 by putting dividers in the bar area and dining room area, and will continue outdoor seating until the town says they can’t.

Scott Sergiano, area manager for Caffe Nero, said many customers aren’t up to speed on the latest state regulations for dining.

“You’d be surprised how many people call and ask if we have indoor dining,” he said. “They don’t have a clue.”

Phase 3 will increase his indoor dining by about eight seats, he said.

“It helps because we’ll have more capacity,” Sergiano said, but this will be in tandem with the likely loss of outdoor seats with colder weather.

Still, he’s optimistic.

“You never know,” he said. “In November you get a 75-degree day.”

Darien Library is also adapting their current guidelines to reflect phase 3.

“We have been waiting to announce the changes publicly until the state provides the detailed guidance documentation, which they have yet to do. We do know that the state’s phase 3 includes bumping up from 50 percent indoor capacity to 75 percent, so we will likewise be able to allow more individuals into the Library,” said library Director Kiera Parrott

The library intends to announce full phase 3 changes next week. In the meantime, it is expanding to Saturday service from 1 to 5 p.m. starting this Oct. 10.

The Museum of Darien reopened Oct. 6 for the first time since the pandemic hit, by appointment only. Appointments can be booked at museumofdarien.org.

First Congregational Church and St. Luke’s Parish are welcoming parishioners back indoors by reservation this weekend.

Meanwhile, Darien Toy Box and Barrett Bookstore both said phase 3 will not impact them much.

“We will continue staying open 10 to 4 and ask customers to keep social distance and no touching. Everyone seems to be okay with that and masks. Occasionally we have had to limit the number of customers in the store —usually no more than 5 or 6,” Darien Toy Box owner Bill Jensen said.

“If there are no new cases, we might go 10 to 5 beginning late October,” he said.

Page Berger of Barrett Bookstore said, given the large space the store maintains and the fact that they don’t get a lot of browsers at one time, “I don’t foresee any technical changes.”

“We will continue to enforce proper mask-wearing and mandatory hand-sanitization as folks enter,” she said. “... We are looking forward to the holiday crunch and will be beginning to encourage people to shop local and shop early given printer press delays, ongoing shipping questions, and in hopes that we can spread out our usual holiday crowds.”

Barrett also intends to offer home delivery again with wrapping to prevent shoppers from being inside the store too long.

Over at the Darien YMCA, a couple new changes shadow phase 3 expansion, including reopening showers in locker rooms, a return of drop-in babysitting, and some tables out by the cafe.

“We’re keeping our capacity levels the same,” explained Patty Kane, marketing and communications director, in part because it’s working well and patrons continue to return.

“We’re working very, very hard to keep this place safe,” said CEO Jennifer Gardner, “to keep this place clean, to make sure that everyone who comes in here is healthy.”

“We hope that through the guidelines ... it gives people more confidence in coming here,” she said. “The members that are here are all very comfortable being here.”

One Darien business that isn’t getting the benefit of the loosening restrictions is Joyride Cycling + Fitness.

“Unfortunately, phase 3 doesn’t change the restrictions imposed on gyms or boutique fitness studios. This is particularly challenging as rules are eased for other retails stores and restaurants. Not to mention the lack of a second round of PPP funding for small businesses,” said Amy Houchhauser, of Joyride.

Joyride has been making use of a large tent in the parking lot by the Corbin Drive Post Office for outdoor classes, but that too will be impacted by cooling temperatures.

“Local boutique fitness studios are all really hard hit right now. We can use all the community support we can get,” she said.

Rich Anders, general manager of the Darien Sport Shop, said the hope is that — while the phase 3 reopening doesn’t directly impact retail — it will encourage more people to venture out.

“We’re surprised by how well the reopening has gone,” he said. “We’ve had absolutely no issues.”

Protocols remain in place, he said, and, like Barrett Bookstore, the store is ready for holiday business.

“We’re still hopeful that it will be a good holiday season,” he said. “So far, so good.”

Likewise, Mazza hopes Darienites will be bringing the joy.

“We’re following the rules, so they should be happy to support us, I hope,” he said.