STONINGTON — With only a few days until Memorial Day weekend, downtown Mystic was bustling with activity on Wednesday morning.
Construction crews were working outside several downtown establishments, setting up barriers and tables and helping transform sections of lots near S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar and Pizzetta in preparation for outdoor dining later in the day.
Stores were opening windows and doors, posting signs with state regulations and customer requirements, while window-shoppers browsed from the one-way sidewalks and others enjoyed the morning from recreational spots along the banks of the Mystic River.
"We are very excited to be reopening for sit-down dining again," said Katherine Johnson, manager at the S&P Oyster Bar. "There are a lot of regulations in place which are designed to keep our staff and customers safe, but people want to dine out and are ready to be outdoors again."
For business owners throughout the region, Wednesday marked the start of a phased-in reopening plan in Connecticut. Businesses are not required to reopen under the first phase, but may do so using COVID-19 prevention guidelines detailed in state orders.
The businesses able to open during the initial phase include retail outlets, certain offices, museums, zoos and restaurants. As part of the first phase, restaurants and attractions such as zoos and museums will only be able to offer outdoor services.
Kristin Hartnett, director of member services for the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said many local businesses and members have expressed great excitement to be able to reopen but have remained committed to doing so safely and only if it would not impact recovery.
"It's very important for these businesses to be able to resume, especially heading into what is usually our busiest time of year, but the true feeling from the businesses is that it was and remains more important to flatten the curve," Hartnett said.
Many local businesses have been able to survive the past eight weeks using "Yankee ingenuity," Hartnett said. This has meant shifting operations, hours or both in order to remain viable. She said the community has also been incredibly supportive of business owners, which has helped many in the region wade through the rough waters of the COVID-19 shutdown.
She said business owners would rather remain closed if need be in order to avoid the need for a second shutdown. She said many are being optimistic, however, and believe they could still have a pretty good season even with the anticipated reduction in tourists and out-of-state travelers.
Hartnett said the goal at the moment for many is to get things up and running in a manner that will remain viable in the long-term, rather than simply seeking short-term success.
"Today is the day where people adjust, pull up their boot straps and get to work, and they are excited about that," she said.
Not quite normal yet
The ability to reopen certainly provides hope for those expanding services, such as the S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar.
Johnson said although the restaurant has been able to provide curbside services — she said the support of the community has helped keep the business going while the doors have been closed — her staff has been energetic and enthusiastic as they prepared to offer outdoor dining.
It isn't going to be quite the same just yet, she said, but it's a start and it will allow the restaurant to begin expanding what they offer.
"Safety remains the top priority, and we will make sure every precaution is taken to keep it that way," she said. "The state has some pretty strict regulations and we are prepared to follow the guidelines that have been established."
Following all restrictions, including limiting guests to half capacity, creating space for social distancing and requiring face masks of staff and all customers not sitting at their table, the business was able to set up 15 tables on the patio and add another five tables in a corner section of the parking lot that has been closed off.
Johnson said that with curbside and the new dine-out options, she is confident that the 26-year-old local restaurant will be able to survive the challenges and hopefully thrive again once everything reopens for good.
Staff at Pizzetta, located across the river on Water Street, said they too have survived so far with the support of customers and are also looking forward to reopening, however strange the conditional requirements may be.
General manager Brent McCarty said take-out service for the pizzeria has remained steady throughout the shutdown, which has allowed the business to survive the unusual costs. He noted that to offer outdoor dining — the restaurant has nine tables on its patio and plan to set up another 5 in a corner of the parking lot adjacent to the establishment next week — the restaurant has had to take on added expenses.
The business is in a good position to continue operations, he said, but the future remains uncertain. McCarty said that because the COVID-19 response is unprecedented, however, all the restaurant can do is try to adjust.
"It's great to be open again, but it is nerve-wracking," he said. "There are a lot of expenses to make sure things remain safe, and we are only able to serve a small number compared to normal. It's hard to tell exactly what the long-term impact will be."
Not all establishments are opening seating hours, however. In Olde Mistick Village, Caitlin Anderson said Vault Coffee Roasters will not be reestablishing a sitting area at the moment in order to allow the pre-order window to remain open and to continue to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Vault has offered its handcrafted drinks and even expanded its partnership with Deviant Donuts, which has helped the business maintain operations. Anderson, co-owner and manager of Vault, said keeping foot traffic to a minimum by using a dedicated entrance and exit, as well as the pick-up window, has helped assure the safety of staff and customers.
"We are hopeful that with businesses reopening in the village and with (Mystic) Seaport and the aquarium reopening, we will see an uptick in customers," she said.
Not just restaurants
While restaurants throughout the community continued to make adjustments, so have many retailers.
One such location that is formally back open for business is Mystic Knotwork, which owners Matt and Jill Beaudoin said will feel a lot different for customers than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walking into the business, which is limiting the number of customers, the shop has been redesigned to create dedicated work stations for employees including window-side desks and a dedicated, enclosed area to allow heavy work to be done without exposure and without employees needing to wear a mask while completing labor intensive work. Customers and other employees do not have direct access to the labor-intensive work area.
"We are doing everything we can to make sure we are keeping our customers safe," Matt Beaudoin said. "We've taken precautions to make sure there is ample space, we are offering a sanitizer station and PPE for customers who need them, and we've bought a number of pirate face masks to help convince children who don't want to wear them to take an interest."
The business has created a makeshift system that enhances air flow, which was not required by the state, something Beaudoin said he'd read was one of the biggest factors in the spread of coronavirus.
Business has been anything but bustling over the past weeks, but Beaudoin said they have made adjustments and been able to survive thanks in large part to an uptick in online sales, as well as sales through Amazon.
Beaudoin said he doesn't expect in-store sales to immediately pick up but hopes that they will be able to safely get back to normal sooner than later.
"We're not expecting much over these first few days. We realize that many customers are going to need to get comfortable with the situation," he said.