In the early days of the stay-at-home order, downtown Winona looked like a ghost town, but on Friday evenings, Third Street could soon be shut down to cars and full of restaurant and bar patrons sitting around picnic tables.
Winona city leaders are planning to open up sidewalks, on-street parking, and even the streets themselves to outdoor dining and drinking to support restaurants and bars without patios of their own. The City Council will vote on the outdoor seating proposals on Monday.
Also on Monday, Minnesota restaurants and bars will be allowed to offer outdoor seating with numerous restrictions and limitations, under Governor Tim Walz’s gradual reopening of the state. However, only a fraction of Winona establishments currently have outdoor seating. So what’s a bar with no patio to do? State officials encouraged local governments to do just what Winona is considering: relax zoning rules on outdoor seating and allow bars and restaurants to use public sidewalks and streets.
“We wanted to make sure we were being as collaborative and supportive as possible for the businesses in Winona,” Assistant City Planner Luke Sims said.
Sims and the city planning department proposed a temporary, emergency ordinance that would waive the city’s normal rules for outdoor seating and allow bars and restaurants to use sidewalks and on-street parking stalls for outdoor seating. Additionally, the ordinance would give the City Council or city manger the option to close down city streets for the same purpose, and the City Council will be asked to approve the Winona Main Street Program’s proposal to shut down Third Street for a “Downtown Street Market” every Friday evening.
The Main Street Program’s proposal calls for closing off Third Street between Johnson and Franklin streets every Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Main Street Program Manager Ben Strand also asked that the northbound lanes of the 100 block of Walnut Street — which abuts NOSH Scratch Kitchen — and the 50 block of Lafayette — which abuts the Acoustic Cafe and Island City Brewing Company — also be closed. Other side streets crossing Third Street would remain open.
“This effort is aimed at allowing restaurants to have one night a week where they can expand their outdoor seating capacity in a safe manner and retail businesses can display product outside their store [or] into the street if they wish (similar to the Farmers Market but on a bigger scale),” Strand wrote. “Community members will feel safer to spend time downtown if there is more space to practice social distancing and no traffic to worry about.” He added, “Our historic downtown district is a crucial pillar and economic contributor to our community, and it's important for businesses to have opportunities like this to help them survive and recover from the challenges they have faced and will continue to face as a result of the pandemic.”
While COVID-19 health experts have advised that outdoor settings are comparatively less risky than indoor ones, they stressed that physical distancing and wearing masks is still important outdoors to prevent the spread of the virus. “No matter what solution we could come up with or anyone could come up with to support our restaurants, they are going to come with some concerns,” Strand stated when asked about safety. “It is important that the restaurants and businesses do engage in the recommendations and safety precautions that have been handed down from the state level,” he said, noting that Main Street and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce have been assisting businesses in understanding those guidelines. “There will be concerns, and they are valid, but at the same time we want to do what we can to support the downtown businesses and restaurants,“ Strand said.
The Downtown Street Market plan would require crews to put signs up every Thursday warning drivers of the upcoming street closure, and staff would need to erect and remove street barriers every week. On Friday evenings, the city’s transit service would also have to relocate its primary bus stop from Third and Center streets to Fourth and Center streets.
The proposed emergency ordinance would give the city manager the power to close other streets elsewhere in the city in a similar way.
As for outdoor seating on sidewalks and in on-street parking stalls, local businesses would need to follow several rules in the proposed ordinance, in addition to complying with state rules for reopening and certifying that they have a COVID-19 preparedness plan. First, they would need to apply for a license to use public sidewalks and streets for outdoor seating, including proof of liability insurance and a site plan for where seating would be located. Businesses are limited to the use of the sidewalk and on-street parking directly in front of their storefront, unless they receive permission from neighboring property owners to use other areas. Outdoor seating would be allowed from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. every day. Businesses would be responsible for providing trash cans and cleaning up litter, and businesses must maintain a five-foot-wide path of open sidewalk for handicapped accessibility. They would not be allowed to obstruct traffic lanes.
Will there be enough space for pedestrians to stay six feet away from diners? That is something city staff will look for when reviewing businesses’ site plans, Sims said. City officials will check to make sure there is enough space, he stated, adding that using on-street parking spaces for dining instead of sidewalks could help ensure there is adequate room. However, some of the sidewalk seating already existing in downtown Winona does not provide sufficient space for physical distancing.
How can citizens report problems with outdoor seating? Sims recommended they call the Winona Police Department non-emergency number: 507-457-6302, extension six.
How would the new outdoor seating affect parking availability? “The business is going to be making the decision about whether they value having that parking available in front of their business or if they value seating in front of their business,” Sims responded. He added, “We need something to do downtown for that parking to be valuable.” Parking demand in downtown Winona has dropped significantly since the pandemic.
The City Council will vote on the emergency ordinance and the Downtown Street Market proposal during its meeting on Monday, June 1, at 6:30 p.m., held via the videoconferencing system Zoom. The public is welcome to the observe the meeting, though there is no opportunity for public comment scheduled. To attend using a computer or smartphone, visit https://zoom.us/j/896465916 and enter meeting identification number: 896 465 916. To attend using a telephone, dial 1-312-626-6799 and enter meeting identification number when prompted. City officials have also been streaming council meeting videos on Facebook. Contact information for City Council members is available at www.cityofwinona.com/city-services/city-administration/winona-city-council.