There is an undeniable romance to sidewalk cafes. And all the better when the cafes spill over the curb and into the street, sacrificing a lane of traffic or some parking spaces to the greater value of human conversation and connection. A warm summer's evening spent outdoors with friends is one of life's pleasures.
The proliferation of sidewalk cafes was a welcome side effect of the pandemic. Around Minnesota and around the country, outdoor dining options sprang up as a means to expand restaurant seating capacity while respecting the rules of social distance. Authorities agreeably cut restaurateurs some slack, giving them a bit of leeway in navigating the thicket of regulations that come with serving food and drink in a public right of way.
Those regulations create an ambience all their own: "A minimum of four (4) feet of clear, unobstructed pedestrian walkway shall be maintained between all obstructions and the proposed edge of cafe when the existing sidewalk is twelve (12) feet or less and will not extend more than thirty (30) feet where it shall widen to six (6) feet for a minimum ofsix (6) feet and provide ample room for two or more wheelchairs, strollers, pedestrians, etc., to pass," reads one part of the Minneapolis code.
A little regulatory flexibility was welcome, and important as a means to help restaurants recoup some of the losses they suffered during the interminable pandemic-related shutdowns.
Now that those shutdowns have come to an end, restrictions on indoor dining are being lifted, and the natural instinct of some municipal regulators is to reassert control, while at least some of the restaurants are asking to be allowed to hang onto their expanded streetside operations.
While Minneapolis and St. Paul are studying their options, other cities — among them St. Louis Park and Maple Grove — have stated their intention to cut patio dining options to pre-pandemic levels.
We hope the cities will take a moment, order an espresso and think carefully.
It may be that some pop-up patios are too inconvenient to remain permanently — those that might interfere with emergency vehicles' access, for instance, or with the accessibility standards mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But we'd like to see the authorities act with a bit of forbearance, recognizing that a vibrant outdoor dining scene can give urban neighborhoods a needed element of vitality and charm. (Even so, they cannot work miracles, as an editorial writer discovered the other morning while visiting a St. Paul patio. The waffle was good, but the nail guns and power saws of nearby construction made us wish we had gone somewhere quieter.) We hope regulators will pave the way for at least some of the expanded outdoor seating areas to remain.
It will be a while before the restaurants have recovered their financial health. Many never will recover and are gone for good, among them some of the most revered names in Minnesota's culinary community. Nor have we heard the last of COVID-19. The rising infection rates and flagging vaccination efforts, as well as the demonstrated virulence of the delta variant, make it all too easy to imagine that a new wave of shutdowns could be in our future.
If it comes to pass, it would be nice to have some places we can still go to eat.