“I think there’s a real effort to look at the monopoly power these companies have,” Himes said, among elected officials in Washington, D.C., with questions also under examination regarding tax advantages for such large businesses.
Himes did much more listening than talking, however, though he shared some reflections relating to insights he also heard from Julie Cook, manager of Savannah Bee Company, and Bill Taibe, owner of Don Memo Restaurant — the two other spots he visited.
“We are all adopting to the pandemic because we don’t know when the end is going to be,” said State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who joined in the tour alongside First Selectman Jim Marpe, State. Sen. Will Haskell, Sal Liccione, District 9 Representative Town Meeting member, and Randy Herbertsen, president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association.
“So, any opportunity for people to get together and figure out how to help is appreciated,” he said.
Himes noted that it must be a “strange negotiation” for commercial property owners to work through arrangements with tenants like Taibe, who rents space for his Don Memo eatery at 90 Post Road East, the old town hall.
While he has suffered the pandemic’s impact to his business and its income, property owners also have mortgages and taxes facing them, he said.
“It does them no good if this space goes empty,” Taibe said, who is also looking ahead to cold weather when his 60 outdoor seats are no longer viable and he has to make due with 50% indoor occupancy only, which is around 35 customers.
“I’m really concerned with what’s going to happen a few months from now, what that’s going to look like,” he said.
Taibe, who also owns The Whelk and Kawa Ni in Saugatuck, said overall his business is down 20 to 30%, though he’s been able to bring in more employees since the initial shutdown in March.
“You learned who your essential workers were in a pandemic,” he said.
Taibe said, however, that some employees have chosen to not even come back because of economics.
“They said to me, candidly, ‘I make more money staying home. Why would I want to come back,’” he reported.
Norton, meanwhile, has been surprised to receive so many unemployment claims in her small business, including from people who were only with her a couple of weeks during the holidays.
“I’ve heard that a couple of times,” Himes said, questioning the system at large.
“ I don’t understand why unemployment isn’t simple wage replacement … I don’t quite get why the system isn’t that way,” he said.
Ironically, both Norton and Taibe expressed significant gratitude for the states of their individual businesses, and both shared concerns for others who haven’t had the advantages they enjoy.
“There are some restaurants outside of this area that are doing far worse than we are,” Taibe said, noting the local community has been supportive.
Ironically, Cook said business has picked up considerably in the last couple weeks.
“People seem to be getting a little more courageous about coming, and they’re being safe about coming,” she said, respecting the mask guidelines.
“We really want to stay here,” she said of Westport, noting most of the company’s other 12 stores are throughout the south. “We love this town.”