City Exploring Options For Closing Streets For Dining
Could well spaced tables allow restaurants to reopen? Will diners show up?
As summer approaches, Milwaukee officials have begun exploring options to allow bars and restaurants to have expanded outdoor dining. The establishments are currently closed to in-person patronage.
The idea, being adopted in other cities across the world, allows diners to sit in physically-distant settings while avoiding potential issues with indoor air circulation spreading the coronavirus. In the United States, the idea is being explored from Portland, Maine to San Jose, California.
But while an increasing number of Milwaukee restaurants have patios or sidewalk seating, establishing a minimum distance of six feet between tables would substantially reduce capacity.
Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske said Wednesday that the city is exploring options to grow that capacity. “Maybe using the street to better accommodate seating,” he said. “There might be situations where it might make sense to just close down the street.”
Alderman Robert Bauman compared the idea to how New Orleans closes Bourbon Street every evening to motor vehicle traffic. “I can see Jefferson being a perfect street,” said the downtown alderman. The narrow street has a number of bars and restaurants.
“There are no defined plans at this point, but there are certainly discussions,” said the commissioner.
“Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21 conducted an informal survey of its Instagram followers that received more than 1,100 responses in 24 hours,” said Matt Dorner, the BID’s economic development director in a statement. “One of the questions asked ‘if bars and restaurants open more sidewalk seating (following all ADA and social distancing guidelines), would you be more likely to dine out?’ and 80% of respondents, answered ‘yes.’ With that, it appears that consumers feel that if safely spaced outside seating is an option, it would be an important strategy for businesses to consider adding.”
Neither Polenske or Dorner said what specific options are being considered.
“I think there are a couple different options there to be looking at,” said Polenske.
The city has an existing sidewalk dining permitting process and a parklet program that allows seating structures to be placed in parking spaces. Polenske said any new changes could build on those existing programs.
The discussion on dining options came as part of a broader discussion on the city’s Active Streets program. Over seven miles of city streets are being closed to through-traffic as part of a plan to create for more space for socially-distant exercise.
Representatives of the Milwaukee Health Department said Thursday morning that the city is looking at a phased reopening under its safer-at-home order. Other counties, including each of the counties bordering Milwaukee, do not have a safer-at-home order and bars and restaurants are able to operate as they choose.
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