'Outdoor only' plan for restaurants risks creating winners and losers

Reopening will be much easier for establishments with outdoor capacity.

Bars and restaurants in Minnesota will be allowed to reopen to customers for outdoor dining beginning June 1, but this stipulation puts the state at risk of picking winners and losers.

There's little doubt that the move will significantly benefit restaurants with the space for large patios, while those in tighter confines will be limited in what they can do when June 1 arrives, at a time when pressure on business are so great that several eateries are closing each week.

Trade association Hospitality Minnesota said it was "surprised and disappointed" by the move, which it called a "disastrous setback" for the state's struggling dining businesses, and has called on the state to come up with a relief package.

Restaurants that don't have an outdoor patio or seating area are being encouraged to get as creative as possible and find ways to serve customers outdoors. 

Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), said he is "eager to see municipalities find ways to make outdoor space work." 

That may mean utilizing sidewalk space and parking lots, and possibly being granted permission by MnDOT to set up tables in bike lanes, other near-curb roadways, and possibly closing off sections of a street. 

The basic, hard rules for the reopening of restaurants and bars: 

  • Open for outdoor dining only. 
  • Max of 50 people at a time. 
  • 4 people per table or up to 6 if in the same family.
  • Reservations are required. 
  • Tables are 6 feet apart. 
  • All workers wear masks.
  • Customers strongly encouraged to wear masks (can take them off to eat and drink). 

All of the above is part of Phase II of the Stay Safe MN order. It's unclear when Phase III will begin, but DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said it'll include allowing restaurants and bars to begin serving customers indoors with a maximum capacity of 50 percent. 

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"While it's not perfect, it's safe," said Gov. Tim Walz, who noted that state leaders discussed the idea of allowing indoor dining at bars and restaurants, though health experts don't yet feel it's safe. 

"The hardest thing I think to get through and to think about – because it's hard to grasp this – is it is going to get worse here before it gets better," said Walz, adding that the peak is still expected to come in early July, or perhaps as early as some time in June or in early August. 

"Even if there were no restrictions on this, it's going to be very hard to get people to go indoors because Minnesota's infection rate is so high right now," Walz added, supporting his claim with data from Georgia, which allows dine-in service, showing that reservations are only 15 percent of what they were pre-pandemic. 

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But why are 50 people allowed in an outdoor restaurant or bar setting while places of worship are limited to 10 people?

"We struggled on some of these and there is not a perfect answer," Walz said, claiming the decision was based on the predictability of a restaurant versus a church. The quick argument is that churches could quite easily assign seating for 50 members while maintaining social distancing and making wearing a mask mandatory.  

"I think there is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this piece out around churches," Walz said. 

Walz also had to explain why salons were allowed to serve customers indoors, but restaurants are not, with officials noting that salons typically have fewer people inside them, and that both customers and staff must wear masks. 

Regardless, these are the orders set in place and restaurants and bars now have 10 days to figure out the best way to reopen on June 1. 

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