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Wisconsin Cities Explore Options To Expand Outdoor Dining

Madison, Wausau Officials Approve Provisions To Allow More Dining On Sidewalks, Streets

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People sit outside at a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic
Jeffrey Holinka wears a protective face mask as he waits to receive an order at the On Ocean 7 Cafe along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Fla. during the new coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Ocean Drive was closed to traffic as restaurants in Miami Beach reopened Wednesday after being closed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

As restaurants across the state reopen, some people are still concerned about the safety of indoor dining. Now, several cities are making it easier for restaurants to expand outdoor seating.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway signed an executive order Wednesday streamlining the administrative process for restaurants to obtain or expand sidewalk café licenses.

“The sustainability of our small business community is important, and this is just one way the City can help,” she said in a statement.

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Under phase one of Dane County’s plan for reopening businesses, restaurants are currently allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity indoors, with tables spaced 6 feet apart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists restaurants with outdoor dining as riskier than take-out only, but less risky than restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating, provided that tables are spaced 6 feet apart.

City of Madison street vending coordinator Meghan Blake-Horst said the idea is to give potential customers more options.

“The community that we’re hearing from are saying, ‘I feel more comfortable outside than in,’” she said.

She expects hundreds of restaurants throughout the city to seek new or expanded licenses for outdoor dining. The provision does not include bars.

Madison city officials are also considering adding “café zones,” which would close portions of downtown roads in order to allow even more space for outdoor dining.

Earlier this week, the Wausau City Council approved a similar measure that will close two downtown blocks once a week throughout the summer for “Dining in the Street” events.

Mark Craig is the general manager at Compass Properties, which owns many buildings in that area. He hopes the extra seating will allow the restaurants to draw more people.

“There’s a fair number of people that are still concerned about safety and health and wanting to participate and help local businesses,” he said. “But they want to do it in a way that they feel safe.”

Blake Opal-Wahoske is the executive director of Wausau River District, which lobbied for the expansion.

As some restaurants are operating at reduced capacity to maintain social distancing, he said increasing outdoor capacity will help justify the cost of being open at all.

“With so many summer events being canceled, this is a great option for people to come down and still support their downtown businesses,” he said.

In a letter from Opal-Wahoske urging members of the city public health and safety committee to allow the expansion, he cited similar efforts in Sturgeon Bay, Menomonie and La Crosse.

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