Outdoor dining greenhouses in West Hartford (Ronni Newton)

MANCHESTER, CT  –  Connecticut restaurants were preparing to open Friday without state-imposed capacity limitations for the first time in the year since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a host of public health restrictions. 

Limits on restaurants have fluctuated as the virus has surged and receded in Connecticut. But throughout the year, Gov. Ned Lamont has maintained constant constraints on the capacity of patrons allowed indoors. Most recently, restaurant capacities were capped at 50%. 

Two weeks ago, Lamont announced plans to scrap the limitations on Friday in response to relatively low infection rates and the ongoing vaccination effort.

On Thursday, the governor joined restaurant owners at the Main Pub in Manchester for a press conference, celebrating the occasion and touting government assistance that has helped to keep the industry afloat throughout the pandemic. 

While speakers noted it would take awhile — years even — before the state’s restaurant industry 

fully recovered from the damage done by the pandemic, Thursday’s event sounded almost like a victory lap. At one point, music briefly blared in the dining room of the Main Pub. Someone quickly shut it off. 

“Would you crank up the music again?” Lamont said when it was his turn at the microphones.  “Don’t you remember how much you miss that?” 

The governor said it was a reminder of what restaurants meant to communities: a place for food, music, and companionship. That “bustle” stood in contrast to the quiet of the early pandemic, he said. 

“To me it’s just a reminder of what tomorrow means, a year later we’re back at 100%,” he said.

One hundred percent may be an over-statement. Other public health restrictions will remain in place inside restaurants and elsewhere. Masks will still be required. A continuing provision that mandates six-foot distancing or plexiglass partitions will keep restaurant owners well short of filling their establishments to maximum capacity. 

Still, eliminating the cap has practical and symbolic significance for an industry that lives or dies with consumer confidence. In a phone interview, Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said the announcement was a boon for restaurants before it even went into effect.

“Since the governor made that announcement, we’ve already seen an uptick in reservations. Every restaurant that’s called me has said it’s getting better,” Dolch said. “That’s our business. Our business is consumer confidence.”

Dolch said Lamont’s disclosure Thursday that he had eaten indoors at a restaurant over the weekend also carried symbolic weight. At times during the last year, the 67-year-old governor has confessed to being personally reluctant to eat inside a restaurant amidst the pandemic.

“I ate indoors Saturday night. I’ve had my second vaccine. It felt pretty good,” Lamont said.

Over the past year, consumer confidence has been a fickle thing. Outdoor dining allowed restaurant-goers a feeling of confidence during last year’s warmer months, but the winter was a different story. 

Dan Meiser, restaurant owner and chairman of the association’s board of directors, said an estimate last year that more than 600 Connecticut restaurants had shuttered their doors may now be an understatement. 

“There’s no question there’s been folks that have been lost along the way,” Meiser said Thursday. “That number probably creeped up closer to 800 to 1,000 as we got closer to the holiday season and past.”

Meiser and others said their businesses likely would not have survived this long without state and federal aid as well as generosity from their customer base. Keith Beaulieu, owner of the Main Pub, said one of his customers purchased $2,000 worth of gift cards. 

“A month ago he brought them back and threw them back at me. He goes ‘I just want to let you know I never used these. Throw these out,’” Beaulieu said. “It’s been an overwhelming experience but one that I’ll never forget.”

Dolch speculated it may take as much as five years for the industry to recover completely. He said many restaurant owners are now carrying significant debt as a result of the last year. But Meiser said Friday’s lifting of the capacity limits represented an important step in that recovery. 

“We made it. And while we still have a long road ahead and there’s still so much work left to be done, the good news is that light at the end of that proverbial tunnel — we can see it. Tomorrow’s a big day in that process,” he said.