Downtown Stillwater’s Mad Capper Saloon & Eatery doesn’t have a patio, so when Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday authorized bars and restaurants to begin outdoor service on June 1, it wasn’t the news that owner Tammy Chilson was hoping for.
But the Minnesota Department of Transportation might save her restaurant’s summer.
The agency, in concert with the Department of Employment and Economic Development, is crafting a plan that would allow establishments suffering business losses during the coronavirus lockdown to temporarily set up chairs and tables on sidewalks, green spaces and in parking lanes along state-operated roads that run through small and medium-size towns.
The Federal Highway Administration has signed off on the idea, and MnDOT is working fast to draw up guidelines and a permit process that could be in place as soon as Wednesday, said MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“We would like to do that,” Chilson said. “That would be awesome. Maybe we could borrow furniture from our neighbors.”
Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski is on board, too. The City Council this week passed resolutions allowing residents to buy beer and wine from bars and take it to Lowell Park to sip.
The council also relaxed provisions on liquor licenses, allowing establishments to expand outdoor seating areas into public and private spaces such as sidewalks and parking lots.
That works fine for establishments on city streets, but the rules are different on the historic river city’s Main Street because it is a state highway under MnDOT’s control.
“It’s hard just to get a banner over Main Street,” Kozlowski said. “We can’t even have a sidewalk sale because it pushes pedestrians into the highway. It’s hard to mess with a state highway.”
Bars and restaurants like the Mad Capper have been open for curbside pickup and delivery since Walz ordered them closed more than two months ago to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Walz’s ruling Wednesday allowing eateries to reopen only for outdoor patios and service limited to 50 patrons at a time “kicked people in the gut. It hurt,” the mayor said.
MnDOT’s plan could throw a lifeline to establishments like the Mad Capper, which has no place to set up outdoors, Kozlowski said. He noted that it has no parking lot, an alley behind the building and its front door facing a state highway.
Minneapolis and St. Paul allow for parklets — seating areas that extend into the parking lanes — on city streets. But in other places, like Stillwater, many establishments don’t have their own parking lot, Kelliher said.
That is why MnDOT is working with cities and counties to come up with ideas and looking at places where they might safely work on state roads.
She cited the four-lane Hwy. 169 in St. Peter as another example where establishments such as River Rock Coffee could set up on the sidewalk or parking lane, currently not allowed by state and federal rules.
“It’s about having fair treatment across the state,” Kelliher said.
Kozlowski said Stillwater is ready to put out concrete barriers along Main Street to block off parking spaces and convert the space for outdoor dining and shopping. It just needs the green light.
“If they tell us we can put barriers out on Wednesday, we will have them out on Wednesday,” the mayor said. “It will be a big help.”