WILLMAR — Starting Monday, restaurants in Minnesota can reopen with no more than 50 occupants at a time, but only if all of those occupants are dining al fresco. This could place a hardship on businesses that lack the outdoor square footage to allow for dining tables.
The Willmar Planning and Development Department has been working on drafting an emergency ordinance that would allow businesses in the city to use public space, such as parking spaces and sidewalks, to add or expand their outdoor seating.
"The intent of this ordinance is to support our businesses as they navigate reopening on June 1," said Sarah Swedburg, city planner, as she presented the proposed ordinance Tuesday to the Willmar City Council's Community Development Committee.
While the committee unanimously recommended its approval, the full council still needs to approve it before businesses can approach the city about putting up tables. The City Council will meet in an emergency session at noon Friday to act on the ordinance. Members of the public will be able to listen to a live audio stream of the meeting on the city's website at willmarmn.gov.
The draft ordinance, if approved, would give approved businesses the right to set up customer seating and service areas on the sidewalk or in the public parking spaces directly in front of the business premises. They could also use any city-owned green spaces or empty property that is adjoining to the building where the business is located. There is also the opportunity for some short-term street closures, depending on city administrator approval.
"The intent of the ordinance is to expand the allowances of commercial use of public spaces at this time," Swedburg said.
Businesses would still need to provide at least 5 feet of space for pedestrian use and a 12-foot driving lane must be available on public streets at all times, unless the road is closed. The areas will need to be clearly marked, safety barricades put up and kept clean.
"We want to make sure we think about safety," Swedburg said.
If a business does not follow the rules of the ordinance, there is a civil penalty of no more than $300.
"We hope at the staff level that this is temporary, that it doesn't take a lot of policing," Swedburg said. "That businesses will respect this."
The ordinance would expire when the local emergency declaration is repealed or on the 61st day after the emergency ordinance is adopted, about the end of July.
Businesses wanting to take advantage of the new ordinance will need to contact the Willmar City Clerk, who will collect basic information about the business. Those with liquor licenses wanting to sell in their expanded outdoor area will also need to fill out additional paperwork. Each business will also need to give the city proof of insurance.
"It shouldn't be too difficult or cumbersome of a process," Swedburg said.
City staff knows it is very short notice for businesses, but it took the city some time to get a draft ordinance written and sent through the legal review process.
City Administrator Brian Gramentz said in talks he has had with business leaders in the community, he has learned that some restaurants are still deciding what their next steps will be. For some it might not make financial sense to open up at such low capacity, while others could decide to keep offering take-out only.
"Each restaurant is going through the mental process, not everyone is probably going to rush in," Gramentz said.