New Hayes bar (copy)

An architect rendering of a new bar at 507, 509 and 511 South Front Street that is being proposed by Eric Hayes.

MANKATO — The number of patrons allowed in Mankato bars and restaurants later this summer could be higher than ever before — at least for those with patios — under planned changes in the city’s liquor ordinance.

For the past 13 months, most people think of COVID-19 when hearing about limits to bar capacity. But the liquor ordinance amendment the Mankato City Council appears ready to pass has nothing to do with the pandemic, other than that Minnesotans are more accustomed to eating and drinking outdoors than they used to be.

The city has long limited the number of people allowed in public establishments, mainly for safety reasons if a fire or other emergency strikes. That occupancy limit is based on the square footage and the number of seats in the indoor portion of a bar or restaurant. If the establishment has an expansive patio, the occupancy limit doesn’t grow.

“So, for example, if you have 100-people occupancy in your bar/restaurant and you had a patio that could seat 50, your occupancy would still be 100,” Public Safety Director Amy Vokal told the council during a work session Monday.

Under the new ordinance, which could be approved in the next few weeks, separate occupancy limits would be created for outdoor patios — allowing some bars and restaurants to more than double the number of patrons during warm-weather months. (The increase, of course, will happen only after pandemic-related occupancy restrictions, currently at 75%, are lifted.)

“It only makes sense to do it inside and outside,” Mayor Najwa Massad said of the calculation determining the maximum safe capacity. “... That will help the hospitality business quite a bit.”

The requested amendment came from Eric Hayes, the former owner of the Red Rocks night club who is creating a new bar on the 500 block of South Front Street. Designs for the yet-to-be-named bar show a proposed indoor occupancy of 143, but a spacious patio — with game areas, a fire pit, overhead heaters and a retractable overhanging awning — has a proposed occupancy of 249.

Even on a beautiful summer night, the current ordinance would restrict the number of people in the entire establishment to the 143-person limit for the indoor space. Under the planned amendment, the limit would be 392.

By contrast, on a crummy frigid day, Hayes would have to limit customers to 143 — the indoor capacity limit — if nobody was interested in drinking or dining on the patio.

The proposed ordinance change would also drop the existing requirement that ties the occupancy limit to the number of chairs or stools in a bar or restaurant.

Under the new ordinance, which appeared to have universal support on the council, occupancy would still be limited by safety and accessibility standards, Deputy Director of Public Safety Matt DuRose said. There needs to be enough space for someone in a wheelchair to maneuver through the business. The crowding can’t be so dense that people would be endangered if they need to evacuate in a hurry. There needs to be enough toilets and sinks to accommodate the larger crowds. And if a business decides to expand their patio into their parking lot, they’d need to make sure they still met minimum parking standards, DuRose said.

“A lot of this was born out of the pandemic. ... People are more comfortable being outside,” DuRose said, adding the department is ready to assist with meeting that increased demand while still being vigilant about fire codes and other public safety issues. “How do we help those businesses and keep the hospitality industry vibrant while doing it safely?”

Vokal said the proposed changes will be brought to the Site Plan Review Committee, which is made up of city staff from a variety of municipal departments, and then come back to the council for a public hearing and final approval.

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