It's a new world for food service in Westport

WESTPORT — Janice and Peter Chingos, of Westport, hadn’t left their home for five days before they finally decided — driven by understandable cabin fever — to take a walk into town Friday afternoon.

The world had changed.

“It’s an extraordinary event,” Peter said, marveling at the look of a closed-down Main Street, where cars are few and far between, and barren stores are spotted with paper flyers noting indefinite closures.

“Hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.

“I’d like it to be over,” Janice said.

But at least for now, fear and circumspection surrounding the arrival of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — and all the potential fallout — have closed most stores and businesses, and limited food service establishments to delivery and curbside take-out.

More limitations begin Monday, with Gov. Ned Lamont ordering that non-essential workers, public and private, stay home to promote social distancing. Exempted businesses include the news media, grocery stores, gas stations, health care offices, pharmacies, child care, restaurant and bar takeouts and deliveries, banks, public transportation, auto repair, vehicle repair shops, large construction projects and major defense contractors.

“I think the curbside is the right answer,” Peter said, noting he appreciates some grocery stores have established unique hours for the older population, which is believed to be more susceptible to this particular virus.

The couple was also grateful to find Rye Ridge Deli had lots of food for the taking, including pastrami and roast beef sandwiches, despite having had its doors officially shut to indoor dining by the governor’s proclamation last week.

“We’re fortunate because we’ve always been set up for take-out and delivery,” owner Scott Martin explained.

But while he plans to continue on as long as he’s officially allowed, things are not what they once were for his shop.

“We’re getting business, but it’s nowhere near what we need to maintain,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, but none of this stuff can make up for a full restaurant.”

Like other restaurant owners, Martin also feels “terrible” about having to layoff the wait staff because there’s no work for them.

“A lot of these guys are with me for a long time,” he said.

“We just cut most of the employees,” said Omar Barriga, manager at Planet Pizza.

“Business has really slowed down since this thing happened,” he said, and while they’ve continued with some delivery and take-out, it’s nowhere near what it had been just last month. “We’re not making money but we’re not losing money.”

Toward that end, Barriga said, he feels it’s a responsibility of his establishment to simply be there for the community, to represent some semblance of normalcy and be an open door.

“We’re here to help the customers and to help each other,” he said, noting he has had anonymous orders from like-minded people who have bought pizzas and had them delivered to other businesses as a goodwill gesture.

Nearby at Gold’s Deli, one of Westport’s business landmarks for over half a century, owners Jim and Nancy Eckl have experienced a flood of well wishes and offers of support from the community.

“People are very connected to Gold’s and they don’t want to see anything happen to Gold’s,” said Jim, who had been an employee there before he and his wife took over ownership 17 years ago. “I think we have a special customer base.”

“The support from the community is just absolutely overwhelming,” Nancy said. “We can’t get over it.”

“We feel so blessed to be in this community,” she said, explaining people have offered financial and service help if needed. “People are beyond thoughtful.”

Nancy said they’re continuing to make and sell most of their foods items, including bagels, breads and soups. The only issue with the new curbside arrangement is that things move a little slower than before, given the extra steps.

“I just hope people will be patient,” Jim said, emphasizing they’re also taking extra care with sanitizing and health-related precautions throughout. “It’s critical that nobody gets sick. We’re trying to create a safe environment — for them and for us.”