WEST HARTFORD — On a different freakishly warm November week, Ermal Caushi’s restaurant in the heart of a nightlife district would light up the sidewalks until 1 a.m., especially on weekends, especially in a deep-blue state that has something to celebrate, especially this year, with outdoor dining the clear option.
Not so, this past week. I stopped by Division West, which Caushi opened three years ago, at the witching hour of 10 p.m. last Friday — the moment Gov. Ned Lamont’s closing orders for restaurants took effect on that first night.
Some places in the center, as it’s known, still had diners lingering at tables on a summer-like evening. Caushi’s Division West — named for the colonial designation of West Hartford as the western division — was completely shuttered by that hour.
I had stopped by at midnight the night before and the place was hopping. That was Caushi’s strategy for survival in the coronavirus crisis, after the devastating March-to-May shutdown.
Now, he’s worried — like many restaurant owners — not just because of the curfew but over the impending wave of COVID-19 that threatens to undo the fruits of an extraordinary journey.
Caushi immigrated from Albania with his family in 2003, at age 15. He lied about his age to land a job washing dishes at Vito’s by the Park in downtown Hartford. He stayed in the industry through college, where he studied civil engineering.
At age 29, he cobbled together the money for Division West, and the place did well in a crowded, upscale, high-rent restaurant district. Soon after the May 20 reopening this year, needing a niche to jump-start the business, he devised a late-night menu with limited items.
Lately it has taken off, accounting for nearly half his revenue, as nearby employees from other restaurants started congregating there, after their places closed.
Then on Monday, Nov. 2, Lamont, seeing a rise in COVID cases, ordered restaurants closed at 9:30 effective Nov. 6. After talking with Scott Dolch of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, Lamont backed it to 10 p.m. with last food and drinks at 9:30.
“We put a lot of money into it,” Caushi told me. “And as soon as everyone knows, they’re just shutting us down.”
We’re seeing similar stories in restaurant districts from Greenwich to New Haven to Putnam. As Dolch and the owners and managers point out correctly, they were not the bulk of the problem, and yet they are shouldering a hefty share of the cost — with more than 8,000 restaurants in the state before coronavirus hit, and 160,000 employees, full- and part-time.
As the days pass, we’re seeing that Lamont was right. Massachusetts had a similar rule in place around the same time the Connecticut governor imposed it. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy followed suit this week but allowed outdoor dining to stay open.
And on Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo set a 10 p.m. shutdown time for all restaurants, gyms and bars — a bigger deal there than here.
Many people ask the same question I heard from Caushi and his customers. “What could possibly happen after 9:30,” Caushi asked, “that COVID can’t get you before?”
The answer, as Lamont and David Lehman, the state’s economic development chief, explained, is that restaurants at that hour seem to morph into bars. And bars — still closed — are congregations for crowded tables of “young invincibles,” millennials who think COVID-19 can’t hurt them.
There’s no denying it, many of these places are purely bars late at night, and crowded ones. Food may be available but that doesn’t mean everyone eats a full meal.
“Usually, it’s like 10, 11 o’clock at night that I want a drink with friends,” said a Division West customer named Jason on that final Thursday night last week. “So it’s frustrating, the mental health aspect of not being able to have a drink with friends.”
Lamont, in this “Phase 2.1,” also cut restaurants back to 50 percent capacity from 75 percent, after going the other way on Oct. 8. He tightened the size limits on professionally catered events from 150 to 50 outdoors, and from 100 back to 25 indoors. He set a voluntary curfew of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., again, to curtail the partying — which some say heads right into private homes, more dangerously.
And Lamont set a limit of eight people to a table — noting in his media briefing that he and I had talked about that a couple of weeks before, when I asked him what he was going to do about the common sight of parties of 15 or more indoors. So I’ve been calling that the Haar Rule, which, fortunately, restaurant owners and managers say is not a burden.
“I can just separate the tables,” said Dorjan Puka, owner of five very popular restaurants in central Connecticut, as he sat with a large group outside at his Treva Restaurant & Bar in West Hartford Center.
Puka, unlike Caushi, pushed the time limit to the edge on that first night of the curfew, as a server bought food to his party just after 9:30. The problem with the 10 p.m. limit, he said, was not the volume of customers he might lose.
“I don’t want to rush people out,” said Puka — who is also from Albania and, as it happened, was a chef at Vito’s when Caushi was a teenage dish washer.
That night, he and his staff did just that, emptying the place within a reasonable margin of error after 10. It seemed unnatural, places that would gradually wind down, suddenly emptying.
The numbers show why this latest move is needed. In early October, the state began highlighting cities and towns that had 15 new COVID cases a day per 100,000 people, on average, for a two-week stretch. As of Wednesday, the state’s average across all cities and towns was 37 new cases a day per 100,000, for the last week.
“We realize this is a blunt instrument, but we think this addresses some of the concerns that the governor mentioned,” Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said on the day of the order. “After a certain hour, we learned from a lot of our towns and municipal partners that enforcement was getting harder.”
One more stat: The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 went up by 65 in the week ending last Wednesday, two days after Lamont’s order. The last seven days, ending Wednesday: 220 net new hospital patients for a total of just under 600.
Restaurant owners understand the need for the strict rules. Several spoke with my colleagues Ken Borsuk and Verónica Del Valle this week, in Greenwich and in Stamford.
How badly this change hurts the overall economy is yet to be seen. Clearly it will hurt our already battered sense of community, and as Dolch makes clear, it will hurt some of the people, like Caushi, who have put everything into a dream.
I asked him about furloughs. None yet as of last weekend, he said. “But I’ve had to cut back on hours.”