Restaurant owners wonder whether they’ll survive winter

NEW LONDON, Conn. — When Connecticut locked down in March, Sean Murray had hundreds of gallons of beer and no one to drink it.

Between the restaurant and the dive bar he managed in the city’s downtown, Murray has 70 draft lines.

“We lost about $15,000 in beer alone,” he said. Bottles of beer and wine can sit, but the kegs, Murray said, “were all kaput.”

The Social, the gastropub where Murray works, reopened in September with outdoor picnic tables and socially distanced indoor dining at less than half-capacity. The restaurant happened to already have industrial-size exhaust fans and an advanced heating and cooling system that filters large amounts of fresh air into the building.

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The space, a former office supply store, is 5,000 square feet and used to have a capacity of 252 people, so there’s plenty of room to keep tables more than 6 feet apart. Customers have told Murray they feel safe there.

Sean Murray, the manager of The Social Bar and Kitchen.M. Scott Brauer / for NBC News

Oasis, the bar he manages, remains closed because it is small and poorly ventilated.

If the state locks down again, “it could cost us the business,” Murray said.

There is no plan for a second lockdown, but New London, like the rest of Connecticut and much of the country, is trending in the wrong direction. From Sept. 20 to Oct. 3, the city recorded at least 115 new cases of Covid-19, leading the state Public Health Department and Gov. Ned Lamont to declare it a “red zone.” Soon after, Lamont gave the city the option: stay in phase 3, which allows restaurants to stay at 75 percent capacity for indoor dining, or revert to phase 2, which allows 50 percent.

New London Mayor Michael Passero chose to stay in phase 3, saying the difference wouldn’t stop community spread, which contact tracing in the area showed was mostly the result of youth sports and family gatherings, not restaurants that reopened.

“People aren’t going out to dinner, but they’re going to have their neighbor over and get Covid from that,” he said.

The choice to keep dining at 75 percent, Passero said, was also about perception, especially when most restaurants couldn’t get even that many customers to show up.

New London, Conn., Mayor Michael Passero.M. Scott Brauer / for NBC News

“When the state made a big, public to-do about our cases, we were already aware,” Passero said. “We were watching it rise. We were already working on the problem and trying to adjust.”

The balance Passero is trying to strike — keeping his community safe and local businesses alive while not spreading panic — has proven to be a difficult and a universal one, as towns and cities across the colder regions of the United States stare down a fast-approaching winter and surging virus case numbers.

Some towns and restaurants are trying to get diners back with flashy gimmicks. Restaurant owners want to turn coastal Portsmouth, New Hampshire, into a “winter ski village” to court patrons. In Telluride, Colorado, refurbished gondola cars will serve as dining cabins to deal with indoor occupancy constraints. Elsewhere, indoor dining has shut down a second time. On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker banned indoor dining in Chicago, citing surging case numbers.

In New London, which sits on the Thames River and Long Island Sound and has winters “not fit for man or beast,” most just want to make it to spring, Passero said.

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