Restaurant hesitancy still exists over indoor dining despite loosening COVID capacity restrictions

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The road back to full capacity has been a particularly long one for bars and restaurants, but will we go from socially distant tables to packed dining rooms like a flip of switch?

Connecticut moved to 100% capacity back in March, but many restaurants say challenges and changes during the pandemic have kept them from returning to a full house.

Restaurants in New York City expect much of the same when capacity restrictions lift on Wednesday, and then there's the newfound norm of outdoor seating that appears here to stay.

For lunchtime in Westport, it is clear people prefer to sit outside. The weather and a new-car free zone on Church Street is all part of the appeal.

"We're going to keep this open after the pandemic," Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and President Matthew Mandell said. "Having a great area to come out to and enjoy the outside, and enjoy alfresco European way of dining."

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Connecticut allows 100% capacity inside as long as there are barriers or social distancing, and many restaurants like Manna have invested in safety measures.

"We've taken a lot of steps to create a safe environment on the inside with table dividers, an awesome air purification system," Head Chef Jason Wiener said.

And yet, there's still only a trickle of indoor dining.

Sharon Maddern is vaccinated but is still working up the courage to dine in.

"I feel like now I would eat inside as long as it's not crowded and I felt comfortable with the distance between myself and other diners," she said, "I don't want to go into a packed bar."

But packed bars are hard to find anywhere, even in Manhattan, where people are still gravitating to outdoor dining.

"I don't know if I'd do it again," diner Ruth Kovner said. "But I might I'm not, as worried about it as I used to be."

She was with two friends, and they all had reluctance to return to indoor dining even with restrictions lifted.

"I did eat inside one day with a friend," Anita Hunter said "There was no one in the restaurants but us...I'm not eager."

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That reluctance after a year of fear is understandable, and many establishments say they are seating only about 20% of customers inside.

"There's still def some hesitancy between indoor and outdoor," said Alberto Miranda, co-owner of Nobody Told Me. "Everyone gravitates to outdoor, but to be honest, so would I."

He says outdoor dining is alluring, and he knows a return to standing room only at his bar could be possible if he ensured that all customers are vaccinated -- but that's not a priority now.

"We're always used to checking IDs already," he said. "If we get to a point where that's the best operating practice, vaccination status, I don't see that as a big impediment to business."

But restaurants are banking on sidewalk seating to carry them through for now.

"I think after a while, people will gravitate back inside, especially when the weather is bad or when it gets colder in the fall," Mandell said. "But we're looking at the summer coming forward, and I think it's going to be something everyone revels in."

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