There’s only so long a backslapping governor can survive cooped up in a makeshift mansion studio or a Capitol hearing room bereft of people at daily briefings, midway between election campaigns.
Enough! So on Friday afternoon, a rare, quiet news day, the mandate to shelter in place loosening, Gov. Ned Lamont set off for a trek through Hartford’s North End with some aides and legislators as tour guides.
No proposals to float, no big point to make at all, just to get out and press the flesh. Or rather, connect a few elbows.
There on the busy corner of Windsor and Main Streets, Kenston Harry, working on a car at the Action Audio Store — they do detailing, window tinting, prep for dealers, DUI breathalyzer installations and the like — didn’t expect a delegation that included his old friend, Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Harford.
“You did it yourself, you built this place yourself? That was five years ago?”
“No, about ten.”
“All right, good, so you had good years before the COVID hit.”
Harry closed for about a month as dealers shut down, and is off by at least 45 percent in sales. he kept his whole staff of seven on the payroll so as not to lose anyone, he later told me.
They talk about cars and government assistance. Lamont quips that there’s less traffic but more accidents, and it was off to Dunn’s River Jamaican Restaurant, where Lamont had visited in a campaign event with Chelsea Clinton. Owner Mark Brown talks about the namesake, a waterfall in Jamaica, and of course, they talk about the crisis.
Brown, Like Harry, was able to keep his staff on the payroll in part with help from the federal Payroll Protection Program, and he’s only off about 40 percent — not bad for a restaurant, thanks to takeout through Uber Eats and other services.
Main Street in that stretch carries a dominant Jamaican and more broadly, Caribbean flavor. And Lamont did hit at least two eateries besides Dunn’s, joined by McGee, and Rep. Joshua Hall, Paul Mounds, his chief of staff, who knows the neighborhood well, and later, Mayor Luke Bronin, an ally who ran against him when the Democratic field for governor swelled in 2018.
Lamont asks Brown about his background in the business, which included a stint on a cruise ship. “Sure as hell am glad you weren’t working on a cruise ship six months ago,” the governor said. “I love this place, it’s good to be back.”
Despite the offerings, Lamont, in a dress shirt, casual slacks and what appeared to be boating shoes, didn’t seek out jerk chicken or fried fish. Instead he downed a slice or two of pizza over on Blue Hills Avenue, a block from the Bloomfield line. As oddly, he didn’t talk about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, not much if at all.
This is a part of the state that was hit hard by coronavirus, both in illness and economic hardship. Just how hard, it’s impossible to know as we emerge. “A lot of these folks in this neighborhood have learned how to survive,” McGee said, but he added, “They’re pretty much hurting. They need dollars for infrastructure.”
Franklin Grant, co-owner of Green’s Auto Body, took a break from looking over a car with customer Mike Nice to tell the governor he hadn’t received any assistance. They took his email to send him an info packet, as PPP money is still available. Later, Alan King, who owns a building on Albany Avenue, where a tenant is behind on the rent, and also runs Jak’s Flooring, said he tried to sign up for the PPP, but no luck yet.
“I’ve used up all my line of credit,” King tells me.
The mood was decidedly light over at the Beauty First Hair Boutique — not a salon, a maker of extensions and wigs, many for cancer patients. Owner Destiny Hunter held out a hand. She and Lamont came close to shaking — he’s not the most disciplined distancer in Connecticut — but they pulled back.
“It’s been all right,” she tells Lamont, who won the favor of the hair industry, at least among people of color, by reversing an initial ruling banning blow dryers in the June 1 reopening. That was a highwire act for Lamont, as many in salons wanted to delay reopening and others wanted a sooner return.
But on Friday, it was all about 2-year-old Jaquel Lindsey Jr., Hunter’s son. He wielded a squirt gun and no, Hunter told him, you can’t get anyone wet. The toddler did stand for a photo with Lamont.
This was a crowd of business owners that back the governor. “He’s been doing good so far, so I’m happy to see him,” Hunter said.
Afterward I talk with Brown, at Dunn’s River, who says he’d like help in buying health insurance for his 15 employees. Harry, at Action Audio, who received a small forgivable loan through the PPP, told me his main complaint is the city tax on equipment, which he thinks is incorrectly assessed.
He’d have wanted to bring that up with the governor — assuming the CEO of the state can address city tax issues — but said he didn’t think of it. “It was unexpected for him to drop in.”
It was that kind of hot afternoon, clearly a welcome respite at the start of a June weekend.