MANKATO — In another time, it would have seemed strange to see two employees of a downtown Mankato bar and restaurant measuring the width of South Front Street.
But on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Gov. Tim Walz announced eating and drinking establishments could reopen June 1 with outdoor seating only, business owners were brainstorming. Close South Front Street to traffic and use the driving lanes as space for dozens of tables, each placed six feet apart? Narrow the lanes to create a walkway so that the sidewalks in front of the bars and restaurants could be used for seating?
Owners and managers of hospitality businesses were generally disappointed Walz didn’t move more aggressively in easing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. Then they moved on to contemplating options for making the best of the still-constricted opportunities to make enough money to survive.
“I was hoping the governor would say at least 50% capacity (for indoor dining areas),” said Najwa Massad, whose family runs Olives Mediterranean Restaurant in downtown’s Hilton Garden Inn and Massad’s Grille in the River Hills Mall food court.
Outdoor seating doesn’t offer any relief to either business because neither has patio space. Had the governor allowed indoor seating, even if it was widely spaced, Massad was wondering about the feasibility of putting tables in the window-lined corridor one floor above Olive’s that connects the hotel to a parking ramp and the civic center.
Even that won’t be an option until a future phase of reopening, which Walz and a state economic development official outlined Wednesday but didn’t put a date on.
Massad, who is also in her first term as Mankato’s mayor, said she is conflicted about the response to the pandemic. As a business owner worried about her restaurants and about all the other businesses suffering throughout the city, she’d like to see economic activity return to normal.
“One million percent. I’d be the first person out there,” she said. “Then I put on my hat as mayor and think, ‘You can’t think of just the businesses, you have to think about the citizens and what’s best for them.’”
That was Walz’s message as well.
“If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have coronavirus and everything would be open,” he said in a press conference televised across the state.
The pandemic does exist, however, and state epidemiologists are forecasting that the spread of the virus and resulting hospitalizations and deaths will continue to grow through July and possibly into August.
“It is going to get worse with the virus before it gets better,” Walz said.
So will the economic harm to bars and restaurants, said Tim Tupy, who with his wife Tami owns the Mankato Brewery and Liv Aveda Salon. And there will be a mortality rate for small businesses, too.
“It’s just a matter of how long can you go?” Tupy said. “We’re all burning cash.”
The June 1 easing of some restrictions — bars and restaurants are currently allowed only to offer take-out service and salons are completely shuttered — is helpful for the Mankato Brewery taproom at 1119 Center St. in North Mankato, which has a large patio area. And the salon, with substantial adjustments, should be able to do most of its traditional business.
Tupy, though, is worried about the bars and restaurants that serve Mankato Brewery beers. Keg sales to those establishments represent about 70% of Mankato Brewery’s revenue.
“Every one that doesn’t reopen is lost business for us,” he said. “And the longer this goes on, the harder it is ... .”
The only ray of sunshine in the outdoor-eating-and-drinking scenario is that Minnesota is entering the warmest months of the year. And there were suggestions that businesses can find ways to expand patio capacity if cities are supportive in easing zoning restrictions to allow it.
“We are eager to see municipalities get a little creative here,” said Steve Grove, Minnesota’s commissioner of employment and economic development.
Tupy, however, said the issue goes beyond just finding more space. Cities traditionally require substantial fencing to separate a patio where alcohol is being consumed from public areas where it is prohibited. An establishment’s existing tables and chairs may not be weatherproof. And making an investment in those sorts of things will be difficult for cash-strapped businesses, particularly if outdoor-only seating exemptions are a short-term measure.
North Mankato’s City Council has already sent letters to bars and restaurants encouraging them to seek waivers allowing expanded outdoor seating. And Massad, who said Mankato’s council will be discussing that at its meeting next week, is confident the standards for long-term outdoor seating will be eased for the temporary pandemic patios.
“We’re going to be more lenient and try to help them survive,” she said. “... We’re constantly, constantly thinking about what we can do.”
For some businesses, the doors are likely to remain closed past June 1, even with the state’s permission to partially reopen.
Wow Zone general manager Allison Jennings said the sports bar and restaurant has a patio with potential to expand. Victory Bowl, which Jennings also manages, has Mickey’s Bar and a parking lot that could probably become a patio. But both businesses’ biggest draw is bowling and — in the case of the Wow Zone — a large arcade and laser-tag venue.
“Food has always been kind of a secondary service. It comes with the people coming in to do other activities,” Jennings said.
Walz’s announcement was doubly disappointing for her. Not only are bowling and entertainment centers not being allowed to reopen on June 1 as part of the Phase 2 loosening of restrictions, they were not included in the Phase 3 reopenings that will occur at a yet-to-be-decided date for indoor dining, outdoor concerts, outdoor church services and swimming pools. (Phase 1 was Monday’s reopening of retail stores.)
Bowling alleys will be part of Phase 4, grouped with movie theaters and fitness centers. Jennings said that for months, it seems like all news is bad news.
“These days when we learn stuff, it really takes a toll,” she said, adding that she tries to stay optimistic that better days are ahead. “We’re all in it together. At some point we’ll get through it. I hope we all do. I hope we don’t lose anyone.”
Walz said he recognizes the economic pain and anxiety the restrictions are causing, but he said they’re based on the best advice of health care experts. And reopening the economy too quickly will not only cause the epidemic to worsen, it would likely do little to help businesses because customers won’t show up if they don’t feel it’s safe.
“Even if there were no restrictions on this, it would be very difficult to get people to go inside (to eat and drink),” he said.
Massad saw evidence of that on Monday, when she drove around Mankato to see how the retail stores were doing on their first day back in business. Activity was minimal to nonexistent.
“I thought to myself, ‘Everybody’s in such a hurry to reopen and nobody’s here,” she said.