Omicron is the latest curveball to hit the beleaguered restaurant industry, as staff get sick or exposed to COVID and customers lose confidence in indoor dining during the latest surge of cases.
As Connecticut reported a 21.5% positivity rate Monday, schools have closed and cities and towns have rushed to distribute at-home COVID test kits to residents, where demand has quickly outpaced supply. Officials have attributed the sharp rise in cases to the prevalence of both the delta variant, known to be highly transmissible, and the omicron variant, which is believed to be even more infectious.
The rise in cases over the past two weeks prompted several state restaurants to close voluntarily due to concern for customer safety, along with short staffing caused by employees testing positive — and general difficulty in finding tests, said Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
“There’s just been no relief to the challenges,” Dolch said. “There’s still a lot of unknowns on how we manage this.”
Restaurateurs have called him for guidance, he said, noting hours-long lines for PCR tests in some cities and multi-day waits for results, which could put employees out for extended time periods when restaurants are already short-staffed.
“These are the kinds of calls I’m fielding,” Dolch said. “[They’ll say] ‘I only have three cooks, I’m a small restaurant of 11 people, I need to figure out when I can reopen my doors’…Safety is the first priority, but also the timing is critical. They’re making sure they can get back open as quick as they can in a safe manner.”
The Plainville wings destination plans to resume normal operations Tuesday, a restaurant representative said.
John Ginnetti, owner of 116 Crown and Meat & Co. in New Haven, kept his restaurants closed through New Year’s to protect staff and customers. He made the decision because of “changes in people’s social circle over the holidays as well as swollen crowds over New Year’s,” he wrote in an email.
He said the Crown Street businesses would return to regularly scheduled hours this week. The sandwich shop reopens today, and the cocktail bar resumes service Wednesday. He is providing rapid tests for any employees who believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“[We are] asking our employees and guests to pay special attention to any symptoms that should be telling them to stay home,” Ginnetti said.
Elsewhere in greater New Haven, two of the area’s most famous pizzerias have temporarily closed their dining rooms, with no concrete reopening date. Sally’s Apizza announced Dec. 26 that its locations in New Haven and Stamford would offer takeout and delivery only. Zuppardi’s in West Haven is offering curbside pickup only starting Jan. 2, according to a message on its website, “due to the increasing positivity rates of COVID 19.”
Both of Sally’s locations are currently closed for scheduled routine oven maintenance, which is expected to take two or three days, said marketing director Krystina Nataloni in an email. After that, the pizzerias will reopen just for takeout and delivery.
“In an abundance of caution, with the uptick in COVID cases we want to keep both our team members and guests safe. To do so, we chose to limit interaction by temporarily closing our dining room,” Nataloni wrote. “Currently, we do not have a set date for our dining room reopening as we’re monitoring the situation daily. Any updates will be posted on our website and social channels.”
Zuppardi’s will offer curbside pickup only in West Haven until further notice, said Jim Ormrod, a fourth-generation Zuppardi who operates the pizzeria and its pizza truck with several other family members.
“It seems like we’re preparing to enter a pretty dark period,” he said. “But we have a good curbside setup…[my family] has a good system that works for us.
Zuppardi’s also has a satellite location at The Hops Company [THC] in Derby, a beer hall and event space. THC remains open, he said, but Zuppardi’s will offer curbside service there as well. Ormrod said the pizzeria’s planned takeout spot in Ansonia is also just a few weeks away from opening.
Ormrod said he thinks the Zuppardi’s dining room may be closed until spring, “unless we see a severe change in the numbers and the hospitals are doing better [before then]”.
Dolch said he’s concerned about restaurants’ survival. A New Year’s Eve closure might not “make or break” a business, he said, but “the next month of January will absolutely do it if you can’t keep consumer confidence up, and do it safely and get people still to support the restaurants in some way.”
A survey from earlier this year showed that Connecticut’s restaurants are still suffering from effects of the pandemic. About three-quarters of local eateries’ sales in August were weaker than in 2019, according to information from the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
Many have closed permanently and those that stayed open are paying more for foods and goods, the survey showed. Labor shortages, inflation and supply chain problems have also affected Connecticut eateries, restaurant owners said.
“I wish I can give [restaurants] the magic answer,” Dolch said. “But I tell restaurants they’re not alone in this. I tell them to call like-minded restaurants in their area, to find the best solution for you in the short-term and also in the next two to three months, of how you’re going to survive. There’s no easy solution to this other wave.”
Some restaurants that have installed outdoor structures like igloos and greenhouses are seeing an uptick in bookings, as people may be reluctant to dine indoors. At Wood-n-Tap’s Farmington location, the team introduced a series of igloos to its outdoor dining space in mid-December, and saw immediate interest, said Phil Barnett, the CEO of Hartford Restaurant Group.
“We have 100-something reservations over the next couple of weeks. People have gone crazy [for them],” Barnett said. He said he thinks the interest is a due to a combination of factors: some diners are excited about the new offering and others see it as a safer seating option.
At Millwright’s in Simsbury, chef-owner Tyler Anderson brought back his small village of heated and ventilated greenhouses overlooking the waterfall outside the restaurant. They were popular for small groups celebrating the holidays, he said, and he’s noticed a direct increase in greenhouse bookings as the omicron surge continues.
Anderson said he hasn’t seen a significant drop in business, though. He had some cancellations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but fulfilled the open slots with customers who were on a wait list. He’s also planning a series of weekend dinners, “The Workshop at Millwright’s,” in the restaurant’s loft area with a maximum of 30 guests each night. The first month of the series, which starts Jan. 13, is sold out.
“Consumer confidence is not nearly as bad as it was last year, in my opinion,” he said. “Greenhouse [bookings] have kicked up, but bookings inside have not dropped. So that’s very encouraging.”