People visiting Twin Cities restaurants might find themselves dining on streets, sidewalks or parking lots when the state relaxes some of its social distancing rules next week.

Minneapolis on Tuesday announced plans to offer temporary outdoor dining permits, in hopes that the expanded service would give a revenue boost to bars and restaurants struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Bloomington announced more limited plans for temporary outdoor dining, and officials in St. Paul and St. Louis Park are expected to consider changes in the coming week too.

The new plans come days before the state relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants, allowing them to provide outdoor dining for up to 50 people starting Monday, if they meet certain safety rules.

These Minnesota cities are joining a growing list of communities across the country, like Berkeley, Calif., and Savannah, Ga., that are relaxing zoning rules and suspending ordinances to allow restaurants to use parking lots, boulevards, nearby parks and even portions of the street in front of their front doors to expand outdoor seating.

Restaurant owners say they hope the makeshift outdoor dining can help them regain lost income and provide a sense of security to customers wary of the safety risk of dining indoors. As they reopen, restaurant owners — along with local government leaders — find themselves weighing the economic benefits of additional dining against the need to protect the public while awaiting the local peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not an easy thing. This is a massive lift when we are in the midst of literally a public health emergency,” Brian Walsh, director of Minneapolis’ Labor Standards Enforcement division, told business owners in a webinar Tuesday afternoon. “What you all are trying to do is a monumental lift and you’re really trying to thread the needle.”

On Tuesday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey signed an emergency order allowing the city to temporarily suspend some of its zoning rules to allow for more outdoor dining.

With a permit from the city, bars and restaurants can offer outdoor dining in parking spaces and green spaces near their buildings. Businesses with sidewalk cafes can apply for extra dining space. The city will also close portions of streets to allow for tables, in some cases.

Sam Turner, owner of the Nicollet Diner in Minneapolis’ Loring Park neighborhood, plans to ask for permission to put tables at metered parking spots outside the restaurant.

“It’s essential in that our customers and people in general are just craving some way to get back to some sense of normalcy, even though it’s a new normal,” Turner said. “So, allowing people to be out in their community at their favorite restaurant, sitting down to have a Bloody Mary at brunch goes a long way to make people feel normal.”

Bloomington City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a more limited expansion of outdoor dining, allowing businesses to get permits to add or expand their outdoor patio space. Only in very limited cases, and with preapproval, would they be able to block the public right of way or sidewalks. Places selling liquor will need to detail how they’ll mark the area where those beverages are allowed.

“There’s a presumption of approval here once they satisfy the requirements of that checklist,” said Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge. The permit will not require any fees to the city.

The St. Louis Park City Council is expected to consider similar changes on Monday.

Brian Ingram of Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul hopes officials there will quickly adopt changes too.

Hope Breakfast Bar and the Astoria Café across the street want to barricade the block-long street in front of their businesses to convert it into a temporary patio.

“Only about 10% of restaurants have patios,” Ingram said. “We need this to survive. We are literally on fumes right now.”

Mayor Melvin Carter and the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday are expected to introduce proposals to ease longstanding rules regarding where restaurants can serve food and liquor outside their dining rooms.

City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area and worked to save the old fire station that is now Ingram’s restaurant, said the unprecedented hardship COVID-19 has heaped onto restaurants and other small businesses requires cities go beyond their business-as-usual zoning and permit policies.

“Everyone is saying we need to be creative right now,” Noecker said. “June 1 isn’t going to mean much if they have nowhere for customers to sit.”

Noecker also cautioned, however, that city leaders need to create a process “as universal and fair” as possible.

“Hopefully, we can come out of this with policies that go beyond the current emergency,” she said.

In addition to the local rules, all bars and restaurants in Minnesota must follow standards set by the state. Those rules require businesses to keep at least 6 feet of distance between outdoor tables, and limit each table to four people (or 6 in the case of a family).

They must also take reservations, a move aimed at making it easier for contact tracers to reach people, if someone becomes infected. Employees must wear masks or face shields and do regular disinfecting.

In addition to the logistics of outdoor dining, cities are also grappling with how to handle safety concerns in other locations.

Minneapolis on Tuesday evening began requiring people to wear masks or similar face coverings when they are inside most businesses. They will not have to wear masks while eating outside but should wear them when passing through indoor portions of restaurants, the city has said.

Violating the rule could result in a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $1,000 or, in the case of businesses, actions against their licenses.

The city has said it plans to focus first on outreach and education before resorting to the more serious options.

 

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.