Outdoor restaurant spaces are set to open Monday, but some owners will likely need to wait to see plans unfold.
Rochester Public Works project manager Brett Jenkinson, who was stationed downtown Friday to help finalize requests to use public space for outside dining, said he saw a mix of requests for new sidewalk patios.
“There are a lot of those that will open right away,” he said.
What might take longer are spaces where restaurant owners are hoping to extend seating into parking lanes.
City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead said it was determined Friday that concrete barriers or similar protection will be needed to set up tables next to traffic lanes.
While restaurant owners won’t necessarily be required to provide the barriers, she said they are not something the city can produce immediately to fulfill all the expected requests.
“The city has some, and the city is looking at acquiring more, but that’s not going to be an instantaneous thing,” she said.
Jenkinson said some business owners he spoke with Friday appeared frustrated by the potential delay, but most appreciated the flexibility being provided to expand the outdoor options.
“I think the businesses were satisfied with the ease of it,” he said.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton initiated a change to the city’s COVID-19 emergency order, allowing flexibility in permitting outdoor dining spaces. The Rochester City Council unanimously confirmed it Wednesday, but health and safety concerns remain in play.
“There are health codes and liquor codes that we also have to reconcile, and we are helping people navigate those,” Rochester Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said.
Hollingshead said the restaurants that will have the smoothest transition to open Monday are those already permitted and licensed for outdoor service, whether on existing sidewalk patios or rooftops.
“If a business already has an outdoor space, they can use that outdoor space,” she said. “They don’t need anything from us.”
New outdoor spaces must apply for a permit through the streamlined process, which is starting to show increased interest..
“There aren’t huge numbers yet, but they are coming in,” Hollingshead said of applications.
While the process has added flexibility, the city officials said every situation is unique.
Holly Masek, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance, said that’s what she discovered when she started working with restaurants following Gov. Tim Walz’s May 20 announcement that restaurants could open outdoor eating spaces on June 1.
“The first approach was to try to come up with a cut-and-dried standard policy, and that just not possible,” Masek said of working with businesses and the city.
Instead, she said solutions will likely be needed on a block-by-block basis.
Parrish said the process might not always be smooth, especially if a restaurant, or group of restaurants, proposes closing a street. He said there could be conflicts with neighbors, but the city will try to engage all interested parties in the discussion.
“Our main objective is to get and receive feedback,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there will have to be 100 percent consensus prior to a closure. Our goal is to get that feedback and make the best decision we can with the information that’s presented.”
Parrish said closing some areas may be prioritized over others, but all requests will be considered.
Masek said such closures, especially in the downtown area, where multiple restaurants and bars share a block, will require cooperation with neighbors to achieve the best results.
“If they all just do their own thing and just elbow each other out of the way, they are going to end up with less than if they all agree together,” she said.
While blocks will need to be shared, Masek also said she’s hoping restaurants will start thinking farther outside their front doors.
She said finding a way to set up a pop-up restaurant for evening meals in Central Park would provide an opportunity to engage more people in a special event.
“That would be amazing,” she said.. “It would be beautiful.”
Additionally, she said now may be the best chance to highlight the small downtown city park.
“Generally it’s very, very hard for cities to permit something like that, and since there seems to be a lot of leeway right now, I hope somebody goes for it,” she said.
The greatest barrier at this point appears to be the ability to serve alcohol in a city park, since state guidelines limit service to next to the restaurant in most cases.
Restaurants with catering licenses can serve off premises, and community festival permits allow restaurants to serve alcohol at events like Thursdays Downtown, but generally dining in the park would have to be done without alcohol.
Norton sent a letter to Walz on Wednesday asking for some flexibility on the limitation, but said Friday she had not received a response beyond acknowledgment that the letter was received.
The same letter also asked for consideration of allowing restaurants to serve meals indoors at 25 percent capacity.
Whether the current restrictions are altered or not, Masek said she believes nearly every downtown restaurant is looking at ways to start setting up tables as soon as possible.
“Any capacity that restaurants can get, they will take,” she said.
At this point, the state and city have limits on how many tables can be used in a specific space.
Seating will be limited to 50 people at any given time, and no more than four people can sit at a table, unless all are family. Tables will need to be at least 6-feet apart.
Operating requirements call for staff to wear face coverings and customers to make reservations. Hours of operation are limited to 8 a.m. to midnight.
Masek said some of the requirements will likely be needed to attract potential customers, but she expects loyal customers will be making reservations as soon as possible.
“As long as everyone feels safe and everyone is adhering to high standards, I believe people will come out,” she said.