Hartford businesses and Mayor Bronin urge caution as COVID-19 capacity restrictions are set to lift on Friday

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Rebecca Lurye, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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After the past year, it’s been hard for Antonio dos Santos to imagine allowing more than a couple of customers at a time in his little formal wear store on Park Street.

In 2019, it wouldn’t have been strange for up to 25 people to squeeze into Casa Tony, where most of the floor is taken up by racks of colorful prom and quinceañera dresses and white tuxedos. Dos Santos, the shop’s owner for 44 years, can picture crowds starting to form again in the coming weeks, after Connecticut lifts its capacity restrictions on retail, restaurants and houses of worship this Friday — but he’s going to stay cautious.

“As soon as they lift all those restrictions on clubs and places of gathering, I think people are going to start to come in again, but we take it one day at a time,” said dos Santos, who keeps his door locked so he can control the flow of customers into the shop.

Mayor Luke Bronin is counting on businesses, churches and the crowds they attract keeping that cautious attitude for a while longer.

On Wednesday, he urged residents to “stay vigilant” about mask wearing, social distancing and other rules and guidance that will remain in place on March 19 even as most businesses return to full capacity. Part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s far-reaching plans to loosen rules in the pandemic, the roll-back of many capacity restrictions comes as more residents are getting vaccinated against the virus and positive cases continue to drop.

In Hartford, the average positivity rate over the past 14 days has been 2.6%, the lowest the city has experienced since the summer.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s worth remembering that progress is not because of luck,” Bronin said at city hall on Wednesday. “It’s because of the work our whole community has done to keep us safe.”

Some people won’t need any convincing to continue using the precautions that have become second-nature this past year, Bronin said.

Face masks are ubiquitous on Park Street, one of the city’s busiest commercial districts. And dos Santos said he plans to keep wearing his many masks, made from spare fabric at the start of the pandemic, even after the state eventually eliminates its mandate.

“I want to protect the other, and protect myself,” he said.

But to be safe, the city is distributing fliers that business owners can hang in their restaurants and houses of worship reminding people of the rules that remain in effect.

In restaurants, for instance, tables will still seat a maximum of eight people. And masks will be required whenever a diner is not at their table.

Last week, the city also held a call with a number of faith-based institutions and offered to provide them with thousands of cloth masks to distribute to members of their congregations.

“We’re battling (COVID-19) in every way we can but we have to stay focused on those basics that have become second nature over the past year,” Bronin said.

The city on Wednesday also stepped up its outreach efforts to help eligible residents get vaccinated against COVID-19.

With positive cases of the virus decreasing, the health department decided last week to re-assign some of its contract tracers to calling residents about the vaccine. Those calls began on Wednesday, with the staff dialing numbers straight from voter and tax rolls, elderly renter’s rebate applications, and the city’s list of residents who contracted COVID-19.

If an eligible resident wants to get the shot, the contact tracer then schedules their appointment with either the city, Hartford HealthCare or Trinity Health of New England.

Statewide, nearly 15% of residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 27% have received at least one dose. As of March 8, just 11% of Hartford residents had received at least a single dose of the vaccine, the lowest among any municipality in the state.

Bronin and Hartford’s health director, Liany Arroyo, said they are looking forward to a huge increase in the city after April 5, when anyone 16 and older becomes eligible to sign up for the vaccine.

That’s because the city plans to use the same approach to distributing the shots as it did with providing COVID-19 testing: setting up mobile and permanent sites in neighborhoods throughout Hartford.

“When we don’t have to target a specific age group, we can be a lot more aggressive about just showing up to a particular place and getting people vaccinated,” Bronin said. “... It’s one thing to have to identify the eligible, 55-year-old person and get them to the site. It’s another thing to be able to go out and take all comers.”

Anticipation of the roll-out of the vaccine and roll-back of restrictions have already made businesses and city streets busier, several owners said Wednesday.

A few dozen people were still eating and drinking inside Parkville Market after the lunch rush had passed, even though Wednesdays were slow in the food hall just a few weeks ago, said an employee at Okinawa Boba Co., a bubble tea stall.

In the last couple weeks, their sales have doubled, the employee said.

Across the city on Pratt Street, where several businesses were gearing up for tempered Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, Professional Barber Shop owner Chris Rosa said he’s started to notice more traffic driving into Hartford and more feet on the street.

Rosa said he doesn’t expect to come close to hitting his capacity, even with his shop seeing a lot of new faces since the pandemic began. He still worries that without office workers returning to the downtown, his business will have to close.

But he’s glad to see the rules starting to relax. Rosa said it signals to shoppers, diners and suburban residents that it’s safe to come back to Hartford.

“It’s going to make people less scared of coming out and gathering in the public places,” he said. “It just shows that things are getting better and we’re going to get back to normalcy, the way things used to be.”

Rebecca Lurye can be reached at rlurye@courant.com.