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The Day – Pandemic’s toll on restaurants, entertainment venues tough to pin down

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

Hundreds of restaurants have closed, some for good, due to capacity restrictions, while theaters and other entertainment venues have been dark.

Just how many?

“How many restaurants have failed during the pandemic?” asked a reader who responded to The Day’s CuriousCT feature. “What other entertainment venues will not be opening when permitted?”

Precise answers proved elusive.

Back in November, some eight months into the pandemic, the Connecticut Restaurant Association estimated more than 600 restaurants in the state had closed, either for an extended period or permanently, and that many more likely would experience a similar fate. The number has been bandied about since, but never officially updated. No organization, including the Connecticut Restaurant Association, the National Restaurant Association, the state Department of Economic and Community Development and local chambers of commerce, has kept a comprehensive list of restaurant closings.

“That’s a tough number to get at,” said Mystic restaurateur Dan Meiser, who chairs the Connecticut Restaurant Association’s board of directors.

He said the association based the 600 number on conversations with major food distributors — the Syscos and US Foods of the world — that know which of their customers have stopped needing supplies.

“In the fall, the number was creeping up to 800, and as we got closer to the holidays and restaurants’ patios went away and PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money ran out, there were more closings,” Meiser said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was 1,000-plus.”

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

Anecdotal accounts and reports in The Day and other media shed light on the situation in southeastern Connecticut.

“We have no formal list of closures but we can tell you the following restaurants closed after the pandemic began: MBar, Green Marble and Bartleby’s Café,” Bruce Flax, executive director of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email.

The Day reported on the closings of Avanti’s of Mystic Pizza Restaurant; Café Otis in Norwich; Zack’s Bar and Grille in Stonington; and the NoRA Cupcake Co., O’Neill’s Brass Rail and 1784, all in New London.

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

Scores of Connecticut’s hardest-hit restaurants stayed off the permanently closed list with the help of such aid as Connecticut Restaurant Relief Fund grants. Recipients in the region included The Fisherman Restaurant at Long Point in 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 Subway in Waterford.

“Certainly, 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 we had signed a deal two months before the pandemic began,” Meiser said. “Is this an exciting climate in which to open a restaurant? The answer is a hard ‘no.’”

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

“In Mystic, we could expand our parking lots, have patios and decks, expand onto sidewalks, and there’s the tourism component,” Meiser said. “In the last few weeks, since the governor lifted the capacity restrictions (on indoor dining), business has upticked.”

Meiser thinks restaurants that have survived to this point have a good chance of making it — at least through the summer. But for the many restaurants burdened by “extraordinary” amounts of debt, the fall and winter will provide more challenges, he said.

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

“They see a huge opportunity — and less competition,” he said.

On brink, theaters seeking aid

The ultimate fate of southeastern Connecticut’s entertainment venues may be harder to assess than that of its restaurants.

As of March 19, state-imposed rules still limit theaters, including movie theaters, to 50% of their capacities. They must close by 11 p.m. and keep people 6 feet away from one another. Only time will tell if they survive.

At this point, no venues have closed for good, according to Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition.

“I am knocking on wood as I write this,” Bury said in a recent email, “but we have not seen any entertainment venues close permanently yet, keeping in mind that some are holding out for the Shuttered Venues Operating Grant … If they don’t get that grant, the reopening and recovery will be insurmountable for some. But, overall, we are crossing our fingers knowing that it might be too early to see permanent closures as summer and fall will be make it or break it.”

Leaders of arts organizations gathered Wednesday outside the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam to urge their peers to pursue the $16.2 billion in coronavirus relief aid being made available to venue operators, performing arts organizations, movie theaters and talent representatives.

Successful shuttered venues grant applicants can receive up to 45% of the annual revenue they lost to the pandemic.

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

Even at reduced capacity, Mystic Luxury Cinemas in Olde Mistick Village has been operating daily since Aug. 22, according to owner Bill Dougherty, who said the size of his audiences has been steadily growing.

He’s rolled out new heated, electric recliners and a new sound system and may be benefiting from the fact that other movie houses in the area remain closed.

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

Niantic Cinemas reopened June 19 and closed again July 30 due to the paucity of available movies to show.

“Movie companies weren’t releasing anything,” George Mitchell, the theater’s owner, said. “We were showing old films like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ and getting eight people on a Saturday.”

He said he expects to open again in May.

Arnold Gorlick, who owns the Madison Art Cinemas in Madison, a destination for many southeastern Connecticut movie buffs, said his plans to reopen are contingent on his securing a shuttered venues grant.

“The building has been unused since March 15 of last year and I still have some things to do before I reopen,” he said. “I can see it happening in June or July, if I can get a grant.”

He noted that some movie theaters recently have enjoyed substantial weekend audiences, an indication people are eager to see movies.

Regal Cinemas announced it plans to reopen its multiscreen theaters in Waterford and Pawcatuck on May 14 and May 21, respectively.

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