The Day – Pandemic’s toll on eating places, leisure venues powerful to pin down

It was inevitable that the state government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic would devastate the leisure and hospitality industry, a “supersector” of Connecticut’s economy.

Hundreds of restaurants have closed due to capacity constraints, some forever while theaters and other entertainment venues have been dark.

How many?

“How many restaurants failed during the pandemic?” asked a reader replying to The Day’s CuriousCT Feature. “What other entertainment venues will not open if allowed?”

Exact answers proved elusive.

As early as November, around eight months after the pandemic, the Connecticut Restaurant Association It was estimated that more than 600 restaurants in the state had either been closed for an extended period of time or permanently, and many would likely suffer a similar fate. The number has since been announced but has never been officially updated. Neither organization, including the Connecticut Restaurant Association, the National Restaurant Association, the State Department of Economic and Community Development, and the local chambers of commerce, has kept an extensive list of restaurant closings.

“That’s a tough question,” said mystical restaurateur Dan Meiser, who heads the Connecticut Restaurant Association’s board of directors.

He said the association based the number 600 on discussions with major grocers – the Syscos and US Foods of the world – who know which of their customers are no longer in need.

“In the fall, the number rose to 800, and as we approached the holidays and the terraces of the restaurants disappeared and the money for the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) ran out, there were more closings,” said Meiser. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it were over 1,000.”

“And that doesn’t include the smaller mom and pop stores that don’t rely on the big box distributors,” he added.

Anecdotes and reports in The Day and other media shed light on the situation in southeast Connecticut.

“We don’t have a formal list of closings, but we can tell you that the following restaurants have closed after the pandemic started: MBar, Green Marble and Bartleby’s Café,” wrote Bruce Flax, executive director of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, in an E. -Mail.

The day reported the closure of Avanti’s Mystic Pizza Restaurant; Cafe Otis in Norwich; Zack’s Bar and Grill in Stonington; and the NoRA Cupcake Co., O’Neills Brass Rail and 1784, all in New London.

Flax also provided a list of newly opened restaurants including Young Buns Donuts, Nana’s Bakery, Noble Smokehouse, The Shipwright’s Daughter, and Via Emilia.

Many of Connecticut’s hardest hit restaurants have been removed from the permanently closed list with the help of grants such as the Connecticut Restaurant Relief Fund grants. Recipients in the area included the Fisherman Restaurant at Long Point, Groton; Rise and Steak Loft, both in Mystic; RD86 and The Yolk Café, both in New London; Namoo in Norwich; Rise Nutrition in Pawcatuck; and Underground in Waterford.

“Of course there are some new ones,” said Meiser, who, along with James Wayman, added Nana’s to Meiser’s restaurant lineup at the end of October.

“We would never have opened Nana’s in a pandemic, except for the simple fact that we signed a contract two months before the pandemic started,” said Meiser. “Is this an exciting climate to open a restaurant? The answer is a tough no. “

Restaurants on the coast in southeast Connecticut have fared better than those in the state’s urban areas, he said.

“In Mystic we could expand our parking lots, have terraces and decks, expand onto sidewalks and there is the tourist component,” said Meiser. “Business has picked up in the last few weeks since the governor lifted capacity restrictions (for indoor restaurants).”

Meiser believes restaurants that survived to this point have a good chance of making it – at least in the summer. But fall and winter will present additional challenges for the many restaurants that are burdened with “exceptional” debt, he said.

Meiser and others in Connecticut and elsewhere fear that mom and pop operators will increasingly be replaced by national chain brands whose business owners have deep pockets.

“They see a great opportunity – and less competition,” he said.

Theaters are looking for help on the fringes

The ultimate fate of entertainment venues in southeast Connecticut may be more difficult to gauge than that of restaurants.

As of March 19, state-imposed rules still limit cinemas, including cinemas, to 50% of their capacity. They have to close by 11 p.m. and keep people 6 feet apart. Only time will tell if they survive.

According to Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, no venues have permanently closed at this time.

“I’m knocking on wood as I write this,” Bury said in a recent email, “but we haven’t seen any permanent entertainment venues nearby, considering some are eligible for the closed venue operating grant. .. If.” You don’t get this grant, reopening and restoring will be insurmountable for some. But overall, we keep our fingers crossed and we know it may be too early to see permanent closings as summer and fall will make it or break. “

Arts organization executives gathered outside Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam on Wednesday to urge their colleagues to take advantage of the $ 16.2 billion coronavirus aid provided by promoters, performing arts organizations, cinemas and talent advocates to provide.

Successful Grant closed venues Applicants can receive up to 45% of the annual revenue they lost to the pandemic.

Among those that are likely to apply are the Goodspeed; the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Center in Old Saybrook; the Garde Arts Center in New London; and the Strange Brew Pub, Chestnut Street Playhouse and the Norwich Arts Center, all in Norwich.

Even with reduced capacity, the Mystic Luxury Cinemas in Olde Mistick Village have been operating daily since August 22, according to owner Bill Dougherty, who said the size of its audience has grown steadily.

He has introduced new heated electric loungers and a new sound system and may benefit from the fact that other movie houses in the area will remain closed.

“We’re getting our regulars back and we’ve seen many, many new customers,” said Dougherty. “We just had a great week with Godzilla vs. Kong. … Our biggest problem was the distribution of films. “

Niantic cinemas reopened on June 19 and closed on July 30 as few films were available.

“Film companies haven’t released anything,” said George Mitchell, the theater’s owner. “We showed old films like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ and brought in eight people on a Saturday.”

He said he expected to reopen in May.

Arnold Gorlick, who owns Madison Art Cinemas in Madison, a destination for many movie buffs in southeast Connecticut, said his reopening plans depend on securing a closed-venue scholarship.

“The building has not been in use since March 15 last year and I still have a few things to do before I reopen,” he said. “I can see it in June or July if I get a scholarship.”

He noted that some movie theaters have had sizable weekend audiences lately, an indication that people enjoy watching movies.

Regal Cinemas announced that it plans to reopen its multi-screen theaters in Waterford and Pawcatuck on May 14th and 21st, respectively.