Almost everyone in the world has a memory of the moment when the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 turned from rumor into reality. That moment hit the Greater Hartford area on Tuesday, March 10, when the City of Hartford canceled the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which had been scheduled for that Saturday, March 14. We had been reading reports about the virus since late 2019. Curiosity gave way to increasing anxiety in January and February as lock-downs were instituted in China, Europe, and other parts of the world. And now it was here. And the cancellation of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was just a hint of what was to come. Soon every other major public event – from the Puerto Rican Parade to the Greater Hartford Jazz Fest – was canceled or went virtual as well. The Hartford Yard Goats canceled their season; churches closed.
In just a few days in mid-March, the world changed. It seemed as though all the simple pleasures in life were suddenly forbidden, from handshakes and hugs to eating at a restaurant and going to the movies. In the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown under the direction of Governor Ned Lamont, only essential businesses like grocery stores and gas stations were allowed to remain open. Restaurants were limited to take-out and delivery service. Office workers worked from home. One by one, Hartford’s cultural institutions closed their doors to the public and went online with virtual programs and events. By the end of March, the lockdown had transformed Downtown Hartford into a strange, eerie place. As the natural world began to blossom, the human world went into hibernation. The streets of Downtown were almost empty of pedestrians, most shops and restaurants were dark. Hotels went dark, some lighting their windows in the shape of a heart as a thank you to healthcare workers. Cars whizzed along empty highways. even at rush hour. Parking spots were plentiful; good news was not. About two dozen downtown restaurants remained open even during the height of the pandemic in April. They delivered food, provided curbside pick-up, and waited for better times. Others closed down and waited to see how the situation developed.
But as spring began to bloom and the weather started to warm up, people started to come to Downtown Hartford, not for a play or a fancy dinner, but for the oldest form of entertainment: the great outdoors. People came to Bushnell Park to stroll, jog, and play socially distanced games of cricket and frisbee. Exercise classes were held at Riverfront Plaza and many new people were exposed to the beauty of walking, running, and biking along the banks of the Connecticut River. The first big step on the road to recovery came on May 20 when Phase I of the governor’s four-phase recovery plan went into effect. Restaurants were allowed to have outdoor dining and many other “non-essential” businesses were allowed to re-open. Strict rules had to be followed to prevent the further spread of the virus, but it was a step in the right direction. Two weeks later, hair salons and barbershops got the green light to re-open.
On June 17, following the state’s progress in limiting the spread of the virus, Phase II began. Restaurants were allowed to have indoor dining if they followed strict social distancing regulations. Capacity was limited to 50% of normal, as it was at gyms, fitness centers, and most other businesses and institutions that were allowed to re-open. Outdoor events were allowed with limited capacity. Despite the easing of restrictions, many businesses and institutions remained closed, feeling that the risks still outweighed the benefits. But others have gone ahead, although with limited services. The Downtown Branch of Hartford Public Library re-opened on Monday, July 13. But only the ground floor was open for patrons to use computers and other resources. Borrowing of materials is still done by curbside pick-up. Riverfront Recapture has re-started its rowing classes, but only for single-person boats.
And on Saturday, August 15, it teamed up with the Greater Hartford Marathon to hold a socially distanced 5K run along the river. Hartford Athletic began playing soccer games again at Dillon Stadium in July. Attendance was limited to 25% of normal capacity. The Wadsworth Atheneum is re-opening this weekend. Pratt Street has been closed to traffic for most of the week this summer for the Pratt Street Patio, presented by the Hartford Business Improvement District (HBID), which includes live music on Friday nights. HBID is planning to continue live music on Fridays through September and possibly into October. HBID is also planning to bring back its week-long outdoor horror movie series on Constitution Plaza sometime in October. Phase III of the governor’s recovery plan was slated to start in mid-July but was put on hold following a renewed surge of the virus in many other states, although not Connecticut. As a result, private gatherings are still limited to 25 people inside, and 100 people outside, bars will remain closed (indoors and outdoors) and indoor dining at restaurants and gyms will remain at 50 percent capacity. Large entertainment venues such as Dillon Stadium will remain at 25 percent capacity. Lamont did not immediately offer a new date for the introduction of phase 3, which was originally slated for July 20. At this time, no firm date has been set for the implementation of Phase III as the governor monitors both’s Connecticut’s progress against the virus and the experience of other states.
While much of Downtown Hartford is also in a “wait and see” phase, some businesses are moving forward. Many of Downtown’s most famous restaurants, including the Arch Street Tavern, Black-Eyed Sally’s, and Max Downtown, are planning to re-open this month. The uncertainty that has marked the COVID19 pandemic from its beginning remains. But progress is being made and the innovations and skills developed during this difficult time are certain to pay valuable dividends in the future.
Photo courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum