Ridgefield sidewalks will become outdoor shopping venues

Main Street in Ridgefield in April.

Main Street in Ridgefield in April.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

It’s a familiar summer sight in downtown Ridgefield: Main Street merchants displaying products on racks and tables outside their shops as part of the town’s annual sidewalk sales.

This year’s version has several twists: It will run much longer than two days, and items won’t necessarily be on sale all the time.

“We’re opening up Main Street from July 1 through early September to allow merchants to have outdoor displays,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “There will be restrictions — they can’t block the sidewalk or go into parking spaces, for example — but this is something we hope will draw more people into town.”

The extended sidewalk shopping is part of the town’s effort to help store owners reeling from the financial downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to a state-ordered shutdown of most businesses. Although many of those businesses have recently reopened, their revenue is lagging.

“It’s a reopening — that’s a voice of optimism which I like — but the business just isn’t there yet,” Marconi said. “There are some places that are not going to make it.”

Marconi listened to merchants’ concerns during a recent walking visit to downtown businesses with Will Haskell, a state senator whose district represents Ridgefield.

“There is a lot of worry and fear,” Marconi said. “Having curbside pickup and delivery and selling more products online has helped — just not enough to cover the business that was lost in the shutdown.

“Several restaurants have put up tents — the town relaxed a lot of permit regulations — and that has helped them serve more people outside,” Marconi added. “Now that they are able to have a limited number of people eat inside the restaurant, that will also help. But they still aren’t operating at full capacity.”

To gather more feedback, the town’s Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) has released the Ridgefield COVID-19 Business Impact Survey — a questionnaire designed to gauge how the town’s 600 businesses and nonprofit organizations are performing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The seven-minute, online survey includes 44 questions (mostly multiple choice) divided among five categories: Operations and Supply Chain, Workforce, Finance, Business Resources, and Future. Data collected from the survey is meant to provide a better understanding of the COVID-19 business climate and allow town officials to pursue resources best suited to support Ridgefield businesses.

“So far we have gotten back 125 surveys,” said Geoff Morris, the ECDC chairman, on Tuesday morning. “Most of those responses point to between a 20 to 40 percent decrease in revenue, for those businesses that have lost revenue.”

Morris said some of the early data is encouraging. “Most of the businesses feel they have enough cash on hand to withstand another minor shutdown,” he said. “And most have said they will be OK after their PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans run out. The morale is generally high.”

“The workers at some of the consumer-facing businesses are nervous because people are not always wearing masks or following other social-distancing guidelines,” Morris added. “We have gotten some comments about that in the surveys.”

Like Marconi, Morris believes not all of Ridgefield’s businesses will survive.

“There are definitely going to places that don’t make it; some were already struggling before COVID. If you are only doing 50 to 60 percent of your previous revenue and rent stays the same, then you may be able to trip along for a few months but not for a longer period,” Morris said. “Others are going to have to change their business model in order to keep going.”

One example of the latter is KaFo, a European-style coffee shop which announced (on its Facebook page) that it is closing its Main Street store and switching to an e-commerce model.

“KaFo will be moving to an online platform and closing our brick and mortar,” wrote the store’s owners on Facebook. “Recent restrictions due to COVID have pushed us to shift our focus to online and we discovered this is a much better fit for us.”

“It’s been hard; there’s no denying that,” said Mike Principi, who owns and operates the Chez Lenard hot-dog stand on Main Street. “For me, personally, the biggest hit has been to my catering business. I usually have 35-40 catering events in June; I haven’t had any since March 3.

“By and large, though, there’s a lot of hope and a will and a desire to get back to the new normal,” Principi added. “I’ve been out here on Main Street the whole time and I’ve talked to a lot of people, store owners and workers. “It’s going to take time, but the optimism is there that retail will come back ... even if it’s a slow process.”