Stamford Advocate

Lamont closed the restaurant­s. Now he’s their biggest promoter

- By Mark Pazniokas

SIMSBURY — Each small greenhouse — along a public walkway, overlookin­g a waterfall — held a single dining table beneath a chandelier. Behind them snaked an umbilical, connecting to an HVAC system that Tyler Anderson says cleans air faster than the ones in hospital ICUs.

Costing more than $5,000 each, the seven greenhouse­s went up in October as a shield against the autumn chill and the loss of the outdoor dining that kept Anderson’s restaurant, Millwright’s, alive after Gov. Ned Lamont banned indoor dining due to COVID-19.

Anderson told Lamont that the greenhouse­s, plus a train-like line of cozy twoperson compartmen­ts on the covered bridge connecting his outdoor dining to the rest of his dining-anddrinkin­g spaces, were among the “silly things” tried during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, he welcomed the governor and a bipartisan group of lawmakers and municipal officials as unlikely partners in keeping Millwright’s and thousands of other Connecticu­t restaurant­s alive, even as 600 others failed.

The occasion was the ceremonial signing of a law that extends for another year the executive order Lamont issued last spring that simplified and fasttracke­d the regulatory process used by Anderson and other beleaguere­d restaurate­urs to establish or expand outdoor dining.

“There’s creativity here,” Lamont said. “This is a park, and this is how you bring your parks back to life, your restaurant­s back to life, and your towns back to life — with this type of creativity.”

One year and a month after Lamont declared an emergency granting him extraordin­ary powers, two things are clear: The restaurant industry suffered deeper financial losses than most, and helping them was politicall­y popular — even when bumping against “home rule,” the New England notion that all land use decisions are best made


The legislatur­e’s Planning and Developmen­t Committee has been a battlegrou­nd this year over questions of whether local zoning is too restrictiv­e, especially regarding housing. But when it comes to saving restaurant­s, the idea of the state nudging local zoning officials was embraced.

“It really was a collaborat­ive team effort and a way to allow our businesses to streamline the process through local zoning. And it really does make a difference,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, co-chair of Planning and Developmen­t. “We’ve been talking a lot about zoning, and we certainly will be in the session to come. This is an example of why and how it’s important to make efforts that are easy and simple for our businesses so that they can thrive.”

Sen. Tony Hwang, RFairfield, the ranking member of the committee, was fulsome in his praise of Lamont, leading a parade of Democrats and Republican­s who sang the praises of collaborat­ion and cooperatio­n — state and local, public and private.

“It was truly a collaborat­ive bipartisan effort that followed the executive order of the governor in his wisdom and insight to protecting our restaurant businesses. They are truly our Main Street mainstays,”

Hwang said. “And what it showed was a collaborat­ive and bipartisan effort.”

It did not come easily. Lamont recalled tense meetings with Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticu­t Restaurant Associatio­n, and David Lehman, the governor’s touchpoint for business restrictio­ns and reopening as the commission­er of economic developmen­t.

“There was more in common than you may think, in this sense: We wanted the restaurant­s to open, we wanted the restaurant­s to open safely, and if you didn’t give the customers confidence that they were opening safely, you’re not going to get customers into your restaurant,” Lamont said.

Dolch agreed and made the tactical decision to avoid open warfare or litigation with the governor’s administra­tion, preferring to position the governor as an ally, an eventual spokesman for the safety of restaurant dining.

The governor’s office and Dolch collaborat­ed on the ceremonial bill signing. The event had no legal significan­ce but offered a messaging opportunit­y in a scenic locale for the governor, the industry and lawmakers eager to associate themselves with the effort.

Greenhouse­s erected of desperatio­n and necessity have become attraction­s, Dolch said. They have one seating at each mealtime, providing an element of exclusivit­y, as well as safety for patrons and staff.

“Now it’s a destinatio­n where people want to come, and more restaurant­s are doing that. And that’s what this bill does. This bill isn’t just about normal patios, this is allowing every restaurant a chance to work with their town,” Dolch said. “That’s the biggest piece about today. It’s about recovery. We’re on that path.”

Lamont first banned indoor dining, then allowed its eventual return — at 50% of capacity, then 75% and now 100%. But the 100% is misleading, because safety rules that remain require either Plexiglass separation­s or six feet between tables.

Millwright’s has an indoor seating capacity of 280, but some of it is in space that does not lend itself to spacing or separation­s. It also included private dining rooms, and event business remains slow. Overall, Anderson said, he can seat about 150, including 54 outdoors in spaces that can accept only one seating a night.

“We just make sure that they’re sold on a nightly basis,” Anderson said. “So there’s a little bit of a premium involved in that.”

Simsbury approved the greenhouse­s, but the state initially objected, questionin­g if Anderson was just creating another form of indoor dining. Local lawmakers like Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, a Democrat from neighborin­g Avon, and others intervened. The governor’s office backed them.

“It’s just an extraordin­ary thing. I worked in restaurant­s for many years. I know how small the margins are, I know what this means, not just to the owners and the managing partners of these restaurant­s, but to all the employees,” she said.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Barkhamste­d, a member of the legislatur­e’s Commerce Committee, delivered the briefest remarks.

“I couldn’t say no to an invitation to speak here. Because a little over seven years ago, I was engaged there,” he said, pointing to a spot by the water where he proposed. “So I’m glad to see this restaurant still thriving, and I’m still married. So it’s worked out really well.”

 ?? Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? Vanity Melendez sanitizes menus while waiting to seat patrons dining at Bull's Head Diner in Stamford on June 17, 2020.
Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo Vanity Melendez sanitizes menus while waiting to seat patrons dining at Bull's Head Diner in Stamford on June 17, 2020.

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