Restaurants reopen with restrictions as some hunger for more

People sit on the patio of a pizza restaurant.
Diners stand in line outside and eat on the patio of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis May 20, 2020. Outdoor dining at restaurants can resume Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A go-slow approach to reopening Minnesota restaurants to dine-in service takes hold Monday with outdoor-only seating for people who made reservations.

The loosening of restrictions don’t go as far as many restaurant owners had pressed for and that neighboring states are permitting. Salons, barberships, tattoo parlors and other personal services businesses can also open their doors with limits on how many clients they can serve at a time.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz resisted pressure from industry groups and others to push the door open wider to those types of businesses and others still shuttered as a coronavirus defense. He hasn’t said when he’ll take the next steps.

The situation had some restaurant owners and cities scrambling to adjust.

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At OMC Smokehouse in Duluth, that’s meant erecting tents and adding more picnic tables. Co-owner Tom Hanson had hoped to seat customers inside at a newly expanded dining room that would have allowed for ample social distancing.

After all, Hanson said, outdoor dining by Lake Superior is a roll of the dice even in summer.

“It’s really likely to have a 75- to 80-degree day turn to 50 degrees within five minutes,” Hanson said.

Allowable capacity is far less than he was counting on — 50 is the limit at any one time — especially with competitors in Superior, Wis., humming amid looser rules there. Hanson said he feels for his idled 200-member staff, less than half of whom will come back right away.

“Like any business if you aren’t making cars, you lay off car auto workers,” he said. “And if you aren’t making food you have to only bring in the people you need. It’s the most crushing part of our decision-making.”

Under the Minnesota rules: Tables must be spaced at least 6 feet apart. Reservations are required; no walk-ins allowed. Servers must wear masks and patrons are encouraged to so, too. No more than four guests to a table, unless it’s a family of six. 

The Nova Restaurant Group has six establishments in Minnesota, from Chester’s Kitchen and Bar in Rochester to Hazelwood Food and Drink by the Mall of America. Chief Financial Officer Bruce Nelson said they’ll all open for patio service.

But he said it’s going to be tough to navigate, starting with what he can’t control.

“I don’t know if anybody looked, but June is one of the rainiest months of the year,” Nelson said.

The governor’s executive order allows people to rush inside if a storm comes, but only to pack up the food and pay the tab. 

Then there’s the issue of restrooms.

“The bathrooms are inside our buildings as is the food,” Nelson said. “So how can you say the food and the bathrooms you’re using, where you can come inside in my climate- and sanitization-controlled building but you can’t eat inside my building?”

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said it’s not a perfect solution but one intended to minimize the spread of virus risk in enclosed spaces.

“In a restaurant, the whole point is to go and stay and converse and have a good time,” she said.

A man standing in an outdoor bar space.
Tony Zaccardi is planning to make changes to the Palmer's Bar back patio before opening in late June.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

For restaurants that don’t have big patios or any outdoor service at all, it’s tricky. Some cities are stepping in to relax rules, creating temporary food plazas or allowing tables where parking spots had been.

In Lakeville, the City Council approved a revision last week to its outdoor service policy so that more restaurants could put in more outside tables and serve alcohol there. That’s without having to apply for special permits.

Mayor Douglas Anderson said it’s a patch for restaurants but not a clear fix for owners that expected to be able to open dining rooms Monday in combination with their patios.

“I do think this is helpful but I have been told by every one of them that this is not an answer,” Anderson said. “There was immense disappointment and quite frankly a lot of our restaurant owners felt they had the rug pulled out from underneath them.”

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said several downtown streets and sidewalks in his city will become spillover restaurant space. He expects those accommodations will be around for a while.

“We’re looking at having this availability throughout the summer so that we can at least help them get back what has been a very, very difficult time for a number of those establishments,” Kleis said. “We want them to succeed. We’re doing everything we can at the city level to help reduce that burden and help them in any way that we can.”

Walz isn’t saying when indoor service can resume.

“After June 1st, we’re prepared to look at what this next step looks like,” he said last week.

Even when restaurants are given more latitude, Walz said it will be up to the dining public to decide when they’re ready to head out for a meal.

Nelson said if the Hudson location of his restaurant group is any guide, the customers will come. That restaurant has had indoor and outdoor table service for more than a week now.

“It has been to capacity ever since,” Nelson said, describing a recent trip across the border. “I would venture to say 80 percent of the license plates were Minnesota.”

MPR News reporters Dan Kraker in Duluth and Kirsti Marohn in St. Cloud contributed to this report.