Wilton businesses gear up for Phase 3 reopenings

WILTON — Wilton business owners are hopeful COVID Phase 3 reopenings will inspire customers to venture out.

Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the Phase 3 initiatives which will go into effect on Oct. 8. Among those, restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and personal service providers will be able to accept 75 percent of capacity, up from 50 percent.

Indoor performing arts venues can open up to 50 percent capacity. Religious gatherings indoors can be up to 50 percent capacity, capped at 200 people, up from 100 in Phase 2.

“It’ll hopefully give people more confidence to be inside,” said Alla Ionesco, owner of Happy Hands Arts & Pottery in the Wilton River Park Shopping Center, which runs classes and after-school programs.

Like many businesses, Ionesco’s seen some apprehension among customers about making the move inside, despite myriad safety precautions being taken while people adhere to the state’s Phase 2 safety regulations. “Thank God for the outdoor seating,” she said.

Fall weather

Warm fall weather has made outdoor classes and dining attractive to customers now, but with the leaves changing color, it’s just a matter of time until it’s too cold to hold outdoor dining and events.

“We talked about getting a heater,” said Patrick Fagan, assistant manager of Marly’s Bar & Bistro in Wilton Center, but the legalities and technicalities of making it happen have proved discouraging.

“So we’re probably going to ax the tent come the cold weather,” he said, with the restaurant then unable to host a good number of outdoor tables.

In order to maintain six-foot distancing rules, and not wanting their customers to feel cramped, some restaurants won’t be increasing their indoor dining capacity to 75 percent as allowed in Phase 3.

“It’s another few tables,” said Damir Bislimi, manager of Red Rooster Pub in Wilton Center, but it won’t completely compensate for the numbers that will be lost from the restaurant’s outdoor seating.

“But it’s a good sign,” he said, “and I hope it’s good for the customers. I hope they see it and get comfortable to come inside.”

“It doesn’t really increase our seating that much,” said Dave Curtis, manager of Craft 14 Kitchen in the Wilton River Park Shopping Center.

“We’re already maxed out at what we can do, so it’s not really going to affect us that much,” he said, though recently loosening of restrictions on bars has helped make theirs a destination again, if only for those who want to be seated there.

More good news, Curtis noted, is that the restaurant can hold larger private parties.

“Our capacity is 80, so we could do a party for 60 people,” he said.

More comfortable

“Whether it’s the change in weather or an evolution in attitude — people appear to be growing more comfortable coming inside,” said Mario Lopez, owner of Craft 14 Kitchen. “People are starting to come around,” he said.

In the haircut business, Bonnie Simonetty, a hair stylist with Great Clips in Wilton Center said, “We’re picking up little by little.”

Though the salon had to reduce the numbers of stylists — and customers — during Phase 2, the business is continuing to make things work.

“It will help,” Simonetty said, of the move toward more capacity, though she and coworkers simply want the pandemic to go away.

For some businesses, the Phase 3 announcement brings a mixed message and has some missing elements.

“We’re not really sure, because Phase 3 didn’t mention anything about the athletic industry,” said Christine Swiatek, co-owner of SDSS Martial Arts, in the Wilton River Park Shopping Center.

Still, she’s glad to have finally gotten some outdoor space to hold larger classes. “We try to stay positive,” she said. “A lot of our clients have really been faithful and loyal, and really helped us get through this.”

Gabby Shilleh, co-owner of Connecticut Coffee & Grill, is happy to have customers back inside. “It’s just that our place is small,” she said, “so it’s hard to fit more than three tables.”

But the coffee shop will still maintain outdoor seating, even as the weather changes, and Shilleh said they will continue to count their blessings for all the loyal customers who get food to go.

“We do have huge takeout,” she said. “I guess that’s the best kind of business to be in right now.”