Outside the wedding venue, The Meadows in Stonington on Friday afternoon, rows of bottles of pocket-sized hand sanitizer stood on a table next to a box of surgical masks in front of a sign that read, “Spread love, don’t take germs / Please.” a. “Less than two hours before the wedding of about 90 people, the bride and groom were taking pictures near the chairs set up for the ceremony in front of a stream and Paffard Woods. The DJ was setting up his system on the covered terrace when the bridal party gathered in it.
Meadows owner Ian Camfield said this was the fourth wedding the facility held outside under a tent it rents this year. It’s known as an indoor venue and usually takes place about one outdoor wedding a year – up until this year when the pandemic took things outside.
As a private institution, under the restrictions of Governor Ned Lamont, it can have up to 100 people outside but only 25 inside.
Venue manager Sarah St. Amour, Camfield’s daughter, said The Meadows originally had 25 weddings planned for this year and could rebook all but one. Camfield said earlier this year that couples are pushing weddings for fall but then postponing them to 2021.
While revenue has fallen dramatically, Camfield said the Eversource fees “ate us alive” and he received no real estate tax relief – “not a formula for a successful small business”.
On September 24, Lamont announced that Connecticut would enter Phase 3 of its reopening on October 8, long four months after the state entered Phase 2 on June 17. Phase 3 will significantly increase indoor capacity, and Camfield said The Meadows will “Feel like we’re back in business.”
“For me, that’s going to change everything, our ability to bring 100 people into the house,” he said. Camfield noted that not many people want to get married in the winter months, although this year might be different, and St. Amour said there might be more galas instead of weddings.
Coupled with the increased limit on private events in commercial establishments, Phase 3 means that indoor performing arts venues can open to 50% capacity, and capacity in restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and libraries will increase from 50% to 75% . Bars and night clubs remain closed.
It does so as new COVID-19 cases are on the rise and, following the state’s test, the positivity rate rose from just 0.7% in the summer to 1.4% on Friday.
In his role as Chairman of the Board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, restaurateur Dan Meiser had urged an increase in event capacity. Meiser owns the Mystic Restaurants Oyster Club, Engine Room and Grass & Bone. He and his wife Jane Meiser own Stone Acres Farm, which hosts weddings.
While restaurants and grocery stores don’t know who is walking in, weddings take place in “a very controlled, orderly environment,” Meiser noted. Temperature tests can be performed on the door. Having each name on a guest list makes contact tracing easier if it becomes necessary.
For restaurants, Meiser said the continued requirement of 6 foot spacing will mean “a pretty significant investment in infrastructure,” which means more plexiglass to achieve 75% capacity. He doesn’t think his restaurants could rise above 75% if allowed to do so “without creating an office / cubicle style”.
Meiser said that, subject to local approval, restaurants can pitch tents and set up heaters outside so they have more space to work.
Art venues explore options
More specific guidelines for indoor performing arts venues are expected to come out, addressing the question of what Phase 3 could mean for their organizations. Are shows with 50% capacity financially feasible? Are there different types of shows that will work?
“We’re just trying to review our options and see if they’re financially viable,” said Michael Gennaro, Executive Director of Goodspeed Musicals. “It’s a step in the right direction and I appreciate that the governor eased restrictions or changed something, but we don’t know exactly what will and won’t work right now.”
He said it would take a couple of weeks to research options. Goodspeed Musicals would have a hard time producing its usual large-cast musicals for less than a full house, but the staff are looking into what other performances might be possible.
The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Center in Old Saybrook has a strategy team working towards its reopening. Executive Director Brett Elliott said the Kate is reviewing options for later fall with “some very small capacities and very specific types of events that we think we can safely host”.
From the style of the events, he notes that there is a big difference between a singer-songwriter and, for example, a loud tribute band. Elliott said if the Kate could break even on a show it would be “amazing, but (as a nonprofit) we’re there for the community too.”
Steve Sigel, Executive Director, said none of the scheduled performances that the Garde Arts Center in New London had to postpone will take place this year. But if the opportunity arose, he would consider the idea of renting out the Guard for something to 100 people.
The region’s casinos are not bound by state capacity rules as they are located on tribal land.
Prior to Lamont’s announcement, Foxwoods had planned to reopen its Grand Theater with socially distant shows, starting with comedian Bob Marley on October 16-17. The website states that the shows “will obey all rules and instructions of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Safety and Health Board,” including seat spacing 6 feet apart.
The Comix Roadhouse / Comix Comedy Club at Mohegan Sun has also reopened, with reduced capacity and distancing.
Libraries adjust the hours but have no capacity issues
Karen Wall, director of the Mystic and Noank Library, said while capacity increases to 75%, libraries will have to stick to as many customers as they can cope with social distancing rules. She said determining that number is particularly difficult for libraries in historic buildings.
“Every library is so different; there is no one size fits all,” said Wall. She added that any library can see how others are handling a particular detail and can adapt that to their own situation.
Amy Kennedy, director of the Wheeler Library in North Stonington, said her library dictates capacity more accurately by space. Phase 3 guidelines would increase the library’s open second floor capacity to about 100 people, but it said staff doesn’t want that many people in the building at the same time.
Wheeler is open to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Guests can make appointments to visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Kennedy said guests also have the option to book private sessions for the story or visit the nursery.
“We feel good about what we’ve done,” she said. “All libraries feel that it’s more about their community than what an outside source tells them.”
The Mystic and Noank Library has gradually increased its opening times over the past few months and distributed the number of people entering at the same time. The Public Library of New London added an hour to its Saturday schedule before reopening.
Director Madhu Gupta said the New London Library would reopen its local history space and notary services by appointment. She said staff is discussing how to reopen programming and meeting rooms “when circumstances permit,” and that physical barriers and cleaning are required between users.
The fundraising campaign for the adoption of a book from the library, which begins October 15, should be run virtually. With the reopening of phase 3, however, employees can publicly view the books as in the past. Users can put books they have touched in trash cans for quarantine and cleaning.
All three library directors said they don’t have to turn anyone down at the door due to current capacity constraints.
Day worker Amanda Hutchinson contributed to this report.