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If you (re)open it, will they come? Uncertainty and anxiety surround May 20 restart

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At noontime on Greenwich Avenue parking spaces were once a premium. Since the COVID-19 rules were enacted by the state closing all nonessential stores, spaces are plentiful. Photo by Bob Rozycki.

“Nobody knows anything,” novelist and screenwriter William Goldman once famously aphorized.

Although the two-time Oscar winner was making a semi-snarky observation about the state of Hollywood in the early 1980s, his words apply just as aptly to today’s environment. As Connecticut businesses go about cautiously reopening, starting on May 20, there is very much a sense of uncertainty, concern and confusion over what to expect.

“Businesses are definitely anxious to get started again,” said Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association. “There are some who would like to have opened already, and some who are a little nervous about opening. It really represents a cross-section of society, like everyone else.”

In the meantime, there is the big question looming over May 20: What if you reopen, and nobody comes?

“We don’t expect a major rush into stores” at first, Phelan said. “Demand will be a little soft to begin with, as everyone gets adjusted to the new situation. But the key is simply to open again.”

Indeed, even after the state published detailed guidance on May 9 explaining what companies operating in a number of sectors needed to be doing by the 20th, not all are rushing to throw their doors open — something that both Gov. Ned Lamont and Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman acknowledged at the governor’s briefing on May 7.

“May 20 might not look that different from May 19 in a lot of areas,” Lehman said. “Not all businesses are going to open on that date that can open, and not all consumers are going to be ready to consume those services on that date.”

One business that will not open on that date is Newtown’s Salon Michele.

“I fully understand that our family of loyal clientele is in desperate need of our talents,” owner Michele Schettino Hawli said. “But at this time I feel as though it is in the best interest of my staff to keep the salon’s doors closed a little longer.

Sidewalk empty of shoppers along Greenwich Avenue. Photo by Bob Rozycki

“We cannot operate at volume, while fully protecting my team or the public,” she said. While reconfiguring the salon’s layout to adhere to the state’s social distancing and other guidelines will take longer, she said she is “optimistic” that her business will open on June 1.

Meanwhile, restaurants — which will be limited to outdoor-only dining — are also uncertain about how to go forward in the appropriate manner, but are not particularly pleased with the restrictions they will still be facing.

“Our local restaurant industry knows that things cannot return to normal right away,” Connecticut Restaurant Association Executive Director Scott Dolch said, “but, as malls and hair salons and others are allowed to gradually begin indoor service, as they should be, it’s illogical that restaurants would be constricted to outdoor-only service for so long.”

Dolch — like Phelan, a member of the governor’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group — said that the guidelines represented “a step toward reopening, but unfortunately not nearly a big enough step to save hundreds of restaurants from going out of business in the weeks ahead. This plan would keep the inside of restaurants closed at the same time other industries are opening up, even those who also serve customers indoors.”

There is also the apparently eternal question of face masks. Employees and customers must wear them at all times — unless actually eating at a restaurant — something that seems unenforceable unless a police officer happens to be around.

Phelan said that retailers are hoping that customers, who presumably have become used to the mask idea as they enter grocery stores, will not put up a fuss.

Provided all goes well, he said he believed that consumers will start to return as “they get more comfortable” with the idea of going shopping again.

Nevertheless, “consumer confidence” has taken on a new meaning in the COVID-19 era. A recent Washington Post/University of Maryland survey found that while 56% of American consumers said they were comfortable shopping in a grocery store, 67% were not comfortable with visiting a retail clothing store and 78% were unwilling to have a sit-down meal at a restaurant.

“It’s going to be a balancing act,” Phelan said. “We’re ready to reopen, and we’re hoping the general public is ready for us to reopen.”

Reopening plainly can’t come soon enough, at least as far as the economy is concerned. The U.S. Commerce Department said that retail sales plummeted by 8.7% in March — the biggest drop since it began tracking that data in 1992 — and expectations are that April’s figures, due on May 15, will be even worse.

In addition, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index was at 86.9 in April.

On the other hand, smartphone location data produced soon after Georgia allowed the reopening of various businesses found that over 60,000 people flowed in from neighboring states, most likely to shop, eat and so on.

In other words: Nobody knows anything.

“The anxiety we all have is over it going well,” Phelan said. “And once we are open, we don’t want to have to stop — we want to get the message across that we’re open, and we’re staying open.”

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