Three former college roommates sipped cocktails on a recent evening outside Erté & the Peacock Lounge, where managers of the small French-American restaurant transformed a strip of sidewalk and street in northeast Minneapolis into a Parisian-style patio with white string lights and planters filled with flowers.
"It just fits right into the neighborhood," Heather Barcikowski said as she waited for her meal on the pavement that formerly would have housed a few diners' cars parallel parked along 13th Avenue NE. "I feel like everyone's gotten into outdoor dining since last summer — lots of people prefer it."
Sidewalk seating and parking lot patios popped up across the Twin Cities in 2020 after local governments rolled back regulations to help restaurants during the state's COVID-19 shutdowns. But now that most health restrictions have been lifted, residents are starting to ask: Will pandemic patios be allowed to stick around?
"I can't say for sure that these things are going to be permanent," said Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul's Safety and Inspections Department. "I think there are some great things we learned during COVID across the board … But around patios, we also have to balance other interests. What about the other businesses? What about pedestrians? What about traffic? What about residents?"
Cities across the state are grappling with similar questions more than a year after launching temporary permit programs at the bureaucratic equivalent of light speed. After the viral outbreak in the spring of 2020, Minnesota restaurants and bars could only offer takeout until Gov. Tim Walz OK'd widely spaced outdoor dining starting June 1.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and area suburbs sprang into action, issuing executive orders that relaxed rules governing signage, tents, parking and public rights of way. Many waived permitting fees and public hearing requirements.
The goal was to give the hard-hit hospitality industry the opportunity to explore new service models as quickly as possible, said Enrique Velázquez, manager of licenses and consumer services for the city of Minneapolis.
Though some state and federal aid became available, it often didn't make up for all their lost revenue.
Patio rule changes allowed businesses to "think about how they could leverage every square foot of real estate in new and innovative ways," said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber.
"What I'm hearing from restaurateurs is there is tremendous demand for expanded outdoor seating, and if some of those temporary regulations get rolled back, it's going to materially impact the future of the industry at a time when they're just emerging from the pandemic, just beginning to recover," he said.
Concerns about access
A small portion of South Leech Street in St. Paul's West Seventh neighborhood has been blocked off for months and filled with tables, umbrellas and seats for customers of the adjacent Hope Breakfast Bar and Café Astoria.
"It made a difference," said John Occhiato, one of the owners of Café Astoria. "People were really excited to get out and support restaurants."
Occhiato and co-owner Leah Raymundo have met with city officials, Hope Breakfast owners and tenants of the apartments above their cafe to broach the possibility of permanently transforming the closed-off block, which they say was prone to traffic incidents before the pandemic. They're not optimistic about their prospects with neighbors raising worries about parking and noise and the city concerned about emergency access, Occhiato said.
"I'd like to see it stay. These little chairs remind me of sidewalk cafes in Europe," said Cristina Benz, who had met her friend for coffee. She pointed to the white and blue wicker set on Astoria's patio. "They have smaller streets than we do, and they find a way to make things work."
Conversations about the future of pandemic patios are taking place in communities across the country. New York City recently announced a two-year plan to let thousands of businesses keep their expanded outdoor dining areas, and Los Angeles officials said they hoped to have a long-term version of the city's "Al Fresco" restaurant initiative worked out by fall.
Others nationally and locally are sunsetting their relaxed rules soon.
Karen Barton, St. Louis Park's community development director, said the city's temporary expanded dining permits will expire at the end of the month, 30 days after the governor's peacetime emergency ended. In Maple Grove, permits will last through the end of the summer but likely won't be offered next year, said Brett Angell, the city's economic development manager.
"In the suburbs, we don't have quite the same space constraints for outdoor dining," Angell said. Just about a dozen Maple Grove restaurants chose to add outdoor extensions, he added, and most could do so without encroaching on sidewalks or parking lots.
St. Louis Park provided grants to help businesses pay for tents or outdoor furniture, Barton said.
"I think people in general were really tolerant of a lot of things during the pandemic," she said. "I imagine as things are opening up, we could get more complaints, especially if there were a lot of added impacts to residential areas."
City staff in Minneapolis and St. Paul said mayors in both cities have asked to see data on outdoor dining during the pandemic before determining what to do. The conversation in Minneapolis will likely take place in the fall and include a variety of groups, such as the city's Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, Velázquez said.
In St. Paul, the discussion could line up with public deliberation over a proposal to eliminate minimum parking requirements for all new developments. A similar measure passed in Minneapolis in May.
"We can have 30 or 40 enjoying our streetscapes at cafe tables, or we could store two or three cars in that same spot," said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. "I'll take the diners any day of the week. It just fills the whole space — within earshot, within eyesight of that location — with a kind of great urban energy, just a feeling of vitality."
A recent Downtown Alliance survey showed 82% of St. Paul respondents would like to keep expanded outdoor dining. Spencer said he expects policymakers to wait until after Labor Day to see how many office employees return to cities' work hubs.
Back in northeast Minneapolis, Erté manager Nicholas Murray said the restaurant's patio has attracted a slew of new customers who might not otherwise have noticed the small corner eatery.
"We'd like to keep doing this next summer," he said, but that might depend on how expensive or laborious the city permitting process is. "Minnesotans have always embraced the outdoors, so I think this was a welcomed change."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478