'It's been a long slog': Darien businesses hope next COVID reopening phase will turn tide

DARIEN — Feelings are mixed about whether the move to 100 percent capacity for restaurants and retail shops is the right move for Connecticut, but people are feeling a positive sense that things are moving forward.

Gov. Ned Lamont has announced that capacity limits will be lifted on March 19 at restaurants, retail shops, offices and more.

“That’s great,” said Bob Mazza, owner of the Sugar Bowl Luncheonette, who has struggled to keep his business going with the restrictions.

“It’s hard to get by with 25 percent or 50 percent,” he said. “We can use all the help we can get.”

Mazza said he has seen more people coming back in recent weeks.

“I think some of the older people are a little hesitant, unless they had the shots,” he said.

That’s why some stores, like Johnny’s Records, intend to keep their occupancy limits in place — in its case, no more than four customers in the store at one time.

“People won’t be comfortable, (as) this is a small store,” owner John Conrad said.

“I want the restaurants to make their money, and the gyms … I want us to get out of this. It’s been a long slog,” he said.

“I think we’re really close, but why blow it now?” he said of loosening the restrictions, noting he would prefer to see the state wait until at least 70 percent of the population is vaccinated.

“Nobody wants to get this,” Conrad said, adding he didn’t want to be a catalyst.

Several other retail store owners said it wasn’t necessarily a change that would have a large impact on their businesses — either because they have ample room to accommodate more people, or they just never have that many in the store at one time.

“I don’t think it really affects us that much,” said Sheila Daley, owner of Barrett Bookstore. “We are lucky enough to have enough space that it’s not a crowded, constricted area.”

“We never really have a huge crowd in at the same time,” said Bill Jensen, owner of Darien Toy Box, who also intends to limit the numbers at roughly the same level he has maintained throughout the winter.

He said he sympathizes with the many businesses that need to facilitate larger numbers of people at once, such as restaurants. At the same time, he noted that ultimately everyone will have to adjust to a changed world.

“We’re not going back to normal,” he said. “That’s not going to happen, regardless of what we’d like or hope for. We’re not going back to 2019. That’s nonexistent.”

“We’ve changed the way we work,” he said. “We’ve changed the way we play.”

Like others, Erica Wood, owner of Wiggles & Giggles, encouraged people to maintain safety protocol.

“I think we should be wearing masks and being careful, but it’s good news,” she said. “I think as a state, they’ve done a great job.”

“I definitely feel for the restaurants,” she said. “My god, these poor people. I think for them, it’s been a horrible year and I think opening up for them will put a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Club Pilates Darien has done its best to maintain protocol, according to manager Katelyn Tortora, but the change will offer much-needed relief.

“I think it’s time,” she said, noting the reduction in space has not only reduced business, but prevented people from taking part in their workout.

“It’s been challenging for our members getting into class,” she said, with cardio classes having been cut in half due to space, and flow classes reduced in size.

“I’m looking forward to the new policies,” Tortora said.

As with business owners, patrons too are on the fence about the right answer.

“I think it’s totally personal,” said Margo Findley, of New Canaan, who stopped in for a bite at Green & Tonic.

She said some of her friends are in favor of the expanded opening, while others feel it’s too much too soon.

“There’s just a mix of different opinions,” she said, “and I respect that.”

She and her friend, Joan Post, of Darien, agree they will feel more comfortable being out and about once they receive the vaccine.

“I think it’s a personal decision that everyone needs to make, to do what they feel comfortable with,” Post said.

David Nelson, owner of Ten Twenty Post, said the change in restrictions is “wonderful in terms of making people more comfortable going out.”

However, because distancing is still in effect, it means that Ten Twenty Post’s table distancing keeps the eatery at 50 percent capacity.

“It doesn’t really change anything for us,” Nelson said.

He said it would help if the eight-person table seating cap was lifted.

“It’s kind of a wash for us, but we are doing very well with what we have to work with. The town has been absolutely amazing to us,” he said.

Nelson said he’s seeing more excitement from the community in terms of getting out on the town.

“I don’t know if it is a pent-up energy or the availability of the vaccine, but I’ve been seeing a lot of people out who I haven’t seen for a long time,” Nelson said.

Nelson also said he expects a good spring after Planning & Zoning has approved an outdoor renovation for the restaurant, that includes removing the outdoor tent and adding a pergola in the back. Additional outdoor seating will also be created along the side of Ten Twenty Post.

Inside improvements will also be coming in terms of changing colors in what Nelson described as a “face-lift” for the 13-year-old restaurant to “lighten it up.”

The improvements will begin in the next few weeks, Nelson said, once the building department approves the plans.

“It’s going to be really beautiful and that’s very exciting,” he said. “These are all good things, good steps.”