‘Starting to see some life’: Trumbull businesses begin Phase 3 with hope, frustration

TRUMBULL — Local businesses welcomed the start of Phase 3 of Connecticut’s reopening plan this week, although consensus around town is that there is still a long way to go.

In Phase 3, restaurants can operate at 75 percent capacity and indoor gatherings of up to 100 people are allowed. Businesses still must abide by social distancing rules, though, meaning groups must be seated 6 feet apart. Bars remain closed, although restaurants may open their bars as long as the customers they serve also are consuming food.

“From the day they announced that we were going to Phase 3, all our phones started to ring,” said Richard Pacino, general manager of the Trumbull Marriott. “It’s not saving the day for us, but it is nice to have some calls coming in.”

The 319-room hotel has been limping along at about 10 percent occupancy. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency responders, wary of bringing home the virus, occupied about 35 rooms, he said. Later, as the state began its long reopening process, there was an uptick in “weekend warriors” who used the hotel as a local destination.

“People just wanted to get out,” Pacino said.

Phase 2 brought some relief as businesses and other groups began booking smaller gatherings under the 50 percent rule that went into effect.

“There were some smaller meetings, six to 10 people mostly, but it allowed us to bring back some staff for food and beverage service.”

Pacino said the hardest part of the pandemic is that the empty hotel meant that staff — from the cleaning crews to the catering teams that work weddings and conferences in the hotel’s ballrooms — also were idle.

“During peak demand, there would be 60 to 75 people working in the building,” he said. “Now it’s more like eight.”

With gatherings of up to 100 now allowed, though, events like medium-sized weddings and business conferences were back on the table. Pacino hopes the built-up demand would generate some bookings.

“We have events that were scheduled for April, that got postponed to late spring, and then into the summer and early fall,” he said. “Now we’re finally at the point where we can start signing tentative agreements.”

Parellel Post, the Marriott’s restaurant, also closed during the early pandemic, then reopened on an extremely limited basis. With guests starting to book rooms again, the restaurant and its staff were looking forward to increased service too, Pacino said.

“We’re starting to see some life,” he said. “It was tough to see the business like it was, but we’re staying optimstic.”

Across town at Prime One Eleven, restaurant owner Kurt Popick greeted Phase 3 with a shrug.

“It won’t really affect us,” he said.

The restaurant has been close to its mandated 50 percent capacity since Phase 2 went into effect, Popick said. The shift to 75 percent is essentially meaningless since social distancing rules remain in effect.

“The restaurant is still the same size, so 50 percent or 75 percent doesn’t really matter if there’s no place to put anybody because they still have to be socially distanced,” he said. “Unless someone has a 20,000-square-foot restaurant, they still can’t get any more people in.”

What has helped, he said, was the cooperation that local business owners received from the town and landlords.

“That was my saving grace,” Popick said. “When they let us put up a tent in the parking lot, that let us have an additional hundred people.”

But with colder temperatures here, Popick said he has had to install sides on the tent and bring in portable space heaters. Adding sides to the tent also turned the outdoor seating into indoor seating, which is again subject to social distancing and 75 percent occupany rules.

“But in a few more weeks when it’s 20 degrees, who’s going to want to be in the tent?” he asked.

Adding to the struggle, the protective equipment the restaurants are using — sanitizer, masks and gloves — all cost money, adding an estimated $500 in monthly expenses at a time when revenue is lower.

“For a while you couldn’t even get masks and sanitizer,” Popick said. “Now those are reasonable, but my last box of 100 gloves cost $114.”

That means every time a server’s glove gets torn or dirty and they put on a new pair, “They’re basically throwing dollar bills in the trash can,” he said.

Despite not being a major boost for the restaurant industry, Popick said Phase 3 was another tangible sign that things were gradually returning to a pre-pandemic normal. For example, after having plexiglass shields up inside the restaurant for months, those were allowed to be taken down two weeks ago. One day he said he hoped to once again see patrons socializing in a way they haven’t been since March.

“It’s tough. I don’t want to be the bad guy, and I don’t want to make people feel like it’s political,” he said. “But I had a guy just the other day that got pretty heated, I had to tell him you can’t stand and socialize at the bar. And this was someone who was in my wedding.”