It hasn’t been an inviting week to dine outdoors in Bloomington, but for some restaurants, it’s the final week they are able to offer the option.

The state’s end of restaurant capacity restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are bringing an end to the outdoor dining provisions offered last summer by cities statewide. Bloomington’s provisions for temporary outdoor dining will expire June 14, the Bloomington City Council determined during its May 24 meeting.

Last year, the council approved a flexible process for the city’s staff to approve temporary outdoor seating as a result of the state’s reduction in indoor dining capacities to allow for social distancing within restaurants. The city’s provisions allowed for fast-tracking the normal process of approving outdoor dining, which often requires a conditional-use permit and an amendment for liquor licensees, according to Glenn Markegard, the city’s planning manager.

The provisions also allowed for flexible compliance with non-safety-related city codes, such as parking requirements and the limitation on how long a restaurant is allowed to use a tent for temporary dining services, he noted.

Most of the 14 restaurants that applied for and received a permit for temporary outdoor dining used parking lot space to accommodate the seating. Gov. Tim Walz encouraged cities to be flexible in providing outdoor accommodations under his pandemic orders, and trading parking space for dining accommodations was generally easy to accommodate, according to Markegard. It was typically easy to replace the parking demand when parking spaces were dedicated to restaurant seating, as the pandemic decreased the overall demand for parking, he explained.

With the governor’s indoor seating restrictions ending late last month, and the city’s provisions being tied to them, the council needed to put an end to temporary outdoor dining. Markegard said the city staff’s recommendation was to allow temporary seating to continue to June 14, the latest date legally allowable as a result of the governor’s order having expired, he noted.

Restaurants with temporary outdoor dining would either have to eliminate the seating or apply to convert it to permanent outdoor seating, which would require a conditional-use permit and a liquor license amendment, if the restaurant has one, Markegard explained.

One of the financial considerations restaurants need to contemplate if adding permanent outdoor dining is the sewer availability charge imposed by the Metropolitan Council. The fee addresses a restaurant’s use of the sanitary sewer system, and the Met Council waived any additional fees as a result of outdoor dining during the pandemic, but expects to collect additional sewer fees for restaurants that add permanent outdoor seating, according to Markegard.

And requests for permanent outdoor seating may inhibit a restaurant’s ability to provide adequate parking to meet its requirements for indoor and outdoor seating, he added.

Prior to the pandemic, the city amended its parking standards, reducing the requirement to one parking space per three seats within a restaurant and one space per five seats of outdoor dining. The less burdensome parking requirements were not fully tested, however, and the city’s staff would like to conduct further study of the less restrictive standards, as there had been complaints about parking at a few restaurants, Markegard explained.

Councilmember Nathan Coulter encouraged the city’s staff to determine if any of the restaurants that offered temporary outdoor seating were interested in the continued flexibility and examining how the city could continue offering flexibility to restaurants.

Councilmember Shawn Nelson was likewise in favor of finding a way to continue to offer outdoor dining, noting that there may be diners who are hesitant to return to indoor dining despite the end of the governor’s capacity restrictions. “We should do everything we possibly can to provide flexibility for both the businesses and those individuals in our community,” he said.

“I would love to see this back before us with a plan to allow this to continue, if at all possible, beyond June 14,” he added.

City Manager Jamie Verbrugge noted the city’s staff would look at options.

The council approved the June 14 expiration date for temporary outdoor dining unanimously.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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