MASHANTUCKET — Gov. Ned Lamont took the stage before Connecticut’s restaurant industry Monday night in a casino ballroom nearly full for the first time since the arrival of COVID-19.
He shut the hospitality industry down at 8 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day in March 2020, putting most of its 160,000 employees out of work. Now, on a day when the state reported 5,000 new infections and COVID hospitalizations reached 500, Lamont was their guest.
Not all the 1,100 men and women in the ballroom at Foxwoods Resort Casino were feeling hospitable, even if their very presence was a hopeful sign. The convention dinner was the largest by far since the casino reopened last summer.
Eleven hundred people aren’t always raucous, even when they’ve come to party and the bar was open. As the governor walked on stage, a DJ played him on with booming, upbeat music. The applause was polite, if tepid.
“He hasn’t exactly been a friend of the industry,” said Dave Rutigliano, a restaurant owner and Republican state lawmaker. “I find it shocking he’s been invited.”
But the governor, who reopened the industry in measured steps and did not retreat when COVID surged a year ago, found applause in talking about how the state pressed municipalities to cut red tape and allow outdoor dining.
He spoke for less than three minutes but saved the best news for last: Lamont reassured the Connecticut Restaurant Industry that this December’s surge, much like the last one, will not close their doors.
“You’re staying open,” Lamont said. “We’re keeping this open. We’re getting through this together. And I’m looking forward to going to each and every one of your restaurants as soon as I can.”
The applause was louder. It lasted long enough for Lamont to reach the door.
The governor, a recently announced Democratic candidate for reelection next year, said he was satisfied by the reception, as he has been with industry trade association’s leadership during the pandemic.
Lamont was introduced by Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, owner of the Foxwoods. Frosty at first, their relationship warmed considerably this year with the legalization of sports betting.
“I will say, you know, the governor and I, we had our differences over the years, but we were both focused on one thing and that was re-starting this economy,” Butler said.
Lamont and David Lehman, his commissioner of economic development and point man in negotiating the conditions of the hospitality industry’s reopening, shared a table with Butler and Scott Dolch, the leader of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
Lehman would be honored after the governor’s departure with an award as the industry’s “partner of the year.”
Outside the ballroom, Lamont said, “I tried to say, ‘Look, we had to keep everybody safe. And they had to save an industry.’ And you would have thought that we were polar extremes when we realized how much we had in common.”
One of the association’s goals was to avoid backing Lamont into a corner, not to goad him into telling the dining public the industry was unreasonable and that dining out was unsafe. Dolch hired two political consultants to help guide him. Lamont said he shared that goal.
“We had, they had, to convince people they could get back safely,” Lamont said. “And we had to make sure they were safe. And I think most people feel like we got a pretty good balance, that we got things open very early on, compared to our peers, when it came to outdoor dining.”
Earlier Monday, Lamont told reporters that the latest surge and its positivity rate of more than 5% most days was less alarming than the one last winter because the state’s hospital capacity was not threatened, which he attributed to the state’s high vaccination rate.
“A year ago, let’s say we had a positivity rate more or less in this category, but our hospitalizations were triple where we are today,” Lamont said. “So I’d like to think that means that the vaccines and the boosters may not prevent mild infections in the case of many folks, but it keeps you out of the hospital.”
Dolch has the same hope. He has 8,500 members, everything from mom-and-pop sandwich shops to white-cloth places like Millwright’s in Simsbury, where Chef Tyler Anderson gets notices in the national culinary press.
Millwright’s was one of the restaurants honored Monday night, and the crowd roared when Anderson climbed on stage with his staff. Grinning, he noted he got a slightly better response than Lamont, prompting a new round of applause and a smattering of boos.
A year ago, Dolch said his members just hoped for survival. Tyler invested in small greenhouses, each one a private outdoor dining room.
Lamont toured them in April, when he went to Millwright’s for a ceremonial signing of a law that extends for another year the executive order Lamont issued last spring that simplified and fast-tracked the regulatory process used by Anderson and others to establish or expand outdoor dining.
The outdoor dining was a boon to many restaurants, but the winter brought new fears. Not everyone could afford $5,000 greenhouses. Dolch said 600 restaurants went out of business and hundreds more went into hibernation.
On Dec. 7, 2020, Dolch was furious while watching one of the guests at a Lamont briefing publicly call for closing restaurants, advice the governor declined to take — even if the Yale doctor who suggested it is now his commissioner of public health.
“We didn’t have a vaccine. We didn’t know when we would have vaccine,” Dolch said. “Fast forward to now, another 12 months from that point, and leading in the country in vaccines, the restaurants taking it to heart, making sure they’re going to keep people safe and keep their doors open. That’s what tonight is, it’s a celebration.”
Dolch said the industry keeps a watchful eye on infections and what other jurisdictions are doing. Earlier Monday, New York City mandated vaccinations for private employers, including restaurants, setting a deadline of Dec. 27.
Even if not all his members agree, the industry has been luckier in Connecticut than some other states, he said.
“The governor, last winter, even when we didn’t have a vaccine, he didn’t shut us down. He kept us open at 50%. My peer states didn’t do that,” Dolch said. “We got through it.”
Some of his members are cool to the governor for other reasons, most notably his support of a higher minimum wage and a new paid family and medical leave program.
Lamont’s restrictions, criticized as onerous by some and insufficiently rigorous by others, undoubtedly will be an element of the 2022 campaign that is slowly getting under way — as he was reminded.
One of the guests at the dinner Monday was Themis Klarides, the former House Republican leader and a declared candidate for governor. On his way out the door, he paused to bid good night to Klarides and her husband, Greg Butler.
The tuxedo-clad M.C. of the dinner was Lawrence F. Cafero, who was Klarides’ predecessor as House minority leader. Cafero runs his own trade group, representing the wine and spirits wholesalers.
He eschewed politics when he took the stage.
“Welcome back! Welcome back! Welcome back,” shouted Cafero. “It’s been too long. God bless you all. Welcome back.”
Lamont joined in the applause.