After more than a year of social distancing, capacity limits and mask mandates as Connecticut fought COVID-19, Mystic’s small business owners were ready for a summer that got back to normal. Instead, they face yet another abnormal summer – but not in a bad way.
Owners of restaurants and shops in the coastal village report far more visitors than in a normal tourist season, which they perceive to be a result of pent-up desire for travel and activities after a year inside.
In January, just two percent of Connecticut residents had received a dose of the vaccine. By April, nearly half had the shot – and many didn’t wait long before they returned to tourist destinations like Mystic.
“We were hitting summer levels in March,” said Matt Beaudoin of Mystic Knotwork. “Now, foot traffic is the highest it’s ever been, easily more than double what we’d expect in a normal summer, and our revenue has doubled. We’re tying everything we can tie.”
Beaudoin said that vaccine distribution ramped up far more quickly than he, or other business owners in Mystic, expected, giving them little time to prepare for the influx in customers.
Jeremy Socha, general manager of S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar, said he has been struggling to find people to work and to source supply, with fluctuating prices and availability for commodities like meat and fish, or supplies like paper cups or ketchup packets.
“It was challenging to just turn the switch back on and get back to pre-pandemic customer volume so quickly,” Socha said. “Some restaurants have had to cut hours, but we’ve been very lucky to be able to be open to the capacity we want to be open to.”
Bruce Flax, executive director at the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said most businesses he’s hearing from are experiencing greater demand than even before the pandemic. Flax said he is noticing lots of New York and Massachusetts license plates, with people wanting to take advantage of opportunities to explore the region safely.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Flax said. “Some restaurants have had to make adjustments by closing a day or two because they don’t have enough staff to stay open, but mostly places have been able to take advantage of everyone coming out in droves.”
Still, some restaurants have had to cut hours. Dan Meiser, owner of the Oyster Club, said that while business has been back to pre-pandemic levels, staffing challenges have made it tricky to keep up.
“There is still a massive labor shortage that makes it challenging to capture the business that’s there,” Meiser said. “We’re open five days a week instead of seven at the Oyster Club until we get to appropriate staffing levels, and I’ve definitely heard guests saying it’s hard to find a place to eat on a Monday or Tuesday night in Mystic because nobody’s open.”
Visitors to Mystic need places to stay, and Amanda Arling, president of the Whaler’s Inn, said her hotel has taken full advantage of the surge in tourism. Arling said the Inn has been full all summer, and she is optimistic that tourist enthusiasm will continue through the rest of the year.
“Five years ago, I would have said businesses here absolutely survive off of the peak season, and it subsidizes the rest of the year, but now, Mystic has become a year-round destination,” Arling said. “Right now in peak season, we’re averaging 97 to 98 percent occupancy, and this past winter, occupancy was still over 70 percent, even before much of the vaccine rollout.”
Socha echoed Arling’s optimism about year-round consumer demand.
“There’s not a business in Mystic that could survive only on summer volume,” Socha said. “I’m not particularly worried about winter, because things always slow down, but I know the regular clientele year-round are always going to come out and support us.”
Still, Arling is wary of taking anything for granted in the hospitality industry, and knows that the pandemic is still far from over.
“You hear stories about pockets of the country where the Delta variant is popping up, and you wonder how that’s going to impact future demand for travel and what the fall is going to look like when outdoor activities are not as prevalent, so there are still a lot of unknowns,” Arling said. “I don’t want to get complacent and think that it’s just going to be smooth sailing from here.”