Efforts are underway to help Rochester restaurants expand their outdoor operations.
“We know a lot of our restaurants don’t have enough sidewalk for that, so we’re doing everything we can to expedite the ability for them to open on June 1 with space,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said.
The move follows last week’s announcement that Minnesota bars and restaurants will be able to serve diners at outside seating starting next week.
On Tuesday, Norton signed an amendment to the city’s existing emergency order, offering flexibility for restaurants to use public spaces, including sidewalks, streets and city parks.
Under the amendment, the Rochester city clerk, city administrator, Public Works director and city attorney are authorized to work with existing bars and restaurants to find options for creating or expanding outdoor seating.
Businesses seeking to expand outdoor operations can complete an online application at www.rochestermn.gov/licenses starting Wednesday.
For businesses looking to expand into the public right-of-way, a station will be set up from 8 a.m. to noon. Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday at the corner of First Avenue Southwest and Third Street to finalize required agreements.
Prior to signing the amended order, Norton said restaurants have a variety of options for expanding and will likely need to be creative to get the most out of the opportunity.
“We don’t know what it will look like,” she said.
After Gov. Tim Walz announced the option to open outdoor dining, Rochester City Council members and others began discussing options on social media platforms, raising the possibility to close little-used streets and provide space in parks.
Among the ideas, Joe Ward, president of Experience Rochester, cited an option for using the patio space at the Mayo Civic Center.
“We’d love to host a local restaurant or restaurants in need of outdoor space on the plaza along the riverside at the @MayoCivicCenter,” he stated in a tweet.
Mayor, we’re here to support #RochMn in anyway we can. We’d love to host a local restaurant or restaurants in need of outdoor space on the plaza along the riverside at the @MayoCivicCenter. Interested parties can email me, email@example.com. @VoteWojcik @CMCampion https://t.co/ymOy5HyFIF— Joe Ward (@JosephTWard) May 21, 2020
Norton said the Rochester Downtown Alliance is also working to outline needs and develop concepts that can be rolled out Monday.
Bars and restaurants outside the downtown area may also need some flexibility, she added.
While many might already have ample parking lots to allow expansion of outdoor seating, permits and licenses may be needed, and Norton said the new city order provides flexibility to arrange the needed paperwork.
“We’re just doing everything we can to remove any roadblocks because we know how difficult this has been for businesses,” she said.
Licensed restaurants and bars wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to provide outdoor dining will still face some limitations.
The number of diners is limited to 50 at any one time, and all customers will be required to make reservations. Physical distancing will be required, and limits have been placed on the number of people at a table.
Outdoor operations also will be required to end by midnight and remain closed until at least 8 a.m.
Additionally, Norton said some state restrictions could limit restaurants’ ability to serve alcohol if set up too far away from the front door.
“We may need help from the state,” she said.
The Rochester City Council also will be required to ratify the change for it to be added to the existing emergency order. The council is meeting at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the issue.
In a series of online posts, some council members have indicated they will support the change, but also cited the need for limits.
“We will do what we can to allow restaurants to be successful within the Executive Order,” council member Michael Wojcik wrote. “We should continue to allow public health officials (to) guide policy. The free market is fine with people more dying from #covid19. I am not.”
We will do what we can to allow restaurants to be successful within the Executive Order. We should continue to allow public health officials guide policy. The free market is fine with people more dying from #covid19. I am not.— Michael Wojcik (@VoteWojcik) May 21, 2020
On Tuesday, Norton said the changes are needed to support local businesses.
"Our local small businesses are the cornerstone of our community,” she said in a statement announcing the plan. “We are committed to supporting their efforts to reopen and rebound from the closure with creative and streamlined supports. We also continued to keep a focus on the health and safety of our entire community."