Acoustic Cafe

Clockwise from bottom center, Sue Ellen Kowieski, Caroline Kowieski, Mark Skutley, Carole Skutley, Steve Bethke and Mary Lynn Skutley enjoy time together Monday outside Acoustic Cafe in downtown Eau Claire. The City Council will vote today on changes to ordinances to speed up the process for restaurants using part of public sidewalks for their seating.

A temporary policy intended to help restaurants struggling during the coronavirus pandemic could become permanent today.

During it’s 4 p.m. meeting, the Eau Claire City Council will vote on changing a city ordinance that already allows restaurants in the downtown and Water Street areas to set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk during warm seasons.

Scott Allen, the city’s community development director, said city staff spent several weeks working on the proposed ordinance changes and reviewed what other Wisconsin communities have done.

“Neenah, Green Bay and others have taken this approach to do some expanded opportunities to outdoor seating in their downtowns,” he said during Monday night’s public hearing on the ordinance.

Allowing more outdoor seating is seen as a way cities can help restaurants while their dining room capacities are limited during the pandemic due to public health recommendations.

Changes proposed to Eau Claire’s ordinance would make it faster for restaurants to get a permit to create a sidewalk cafe area. Instead of seeking the City Council’s approval, businesses can get the permit by working directly with city employees. Only in cases where there are unique circumstances, problems with a restaurant’s permit in prior years or objections from neighbors would it go to the council for a decision.

Another change to the ordinance would let restaurants place tables along the front of neighboring buildings — if they have written consent from the owners and tenants of those places.

Using emergency powers granted by the council, City Manager Dale Peters already had put these changes in place about 2½ weeks ago, Allen said. The idea for that was so businesses could more quickly add seating to take advantage of the recent warm weather.

Though he didn’t have exact numbers or names of restaurants that have inquired about the expanded outdoor seating, Allen said “several have shown interest.”

Sidewalk cafe permits normally cost between $42 and $238 — depending on if it’s an annual renewal or applying for the first time, and if the restaurant wants to serve alcohol outdoors. But restaurants that have sought a permit so far this year have gotten them for $0 as part of the city’s effort to cut cost burdens on businesses struggling during the pandemic.

Waiving those fees has been done by Peters under the emergency powers he’s had since mid-March. Those emergency powers, which have been renewed multiple times, are set to expire today. But the council is scheduled to vote this afternoon on extending the city’s emergency declaration to July 28.

For restaurants outside of the downtown and Water Street areas, Allen said they could also expand their seating outdoors. Those restaurants can use portions of their parking lots or other land outside their buildings, but first must get approval from the city to amend their site plans to allow food service in those spots, he said.

Eau Claire is following the lead of other cities that sought to adjust their policies to help restaurants.

Green Bay and De Pere approved allowing restaurants to expand seating into their parking lots and sidewalks, according to a Green Bay Press-Gazette article published on June 5. Kaukauna, Oshkosh and Neenah also have adopted similar temporary outdoor seating policies.

In late May, Wausau’s City Council approved shutting down two blocks of city streets on Wednesday evenings during summer so restaurants there can expand their outdoor seating, according to TV station WSAW. Located in a part of Wausau known as “The Square,” that area’s restaurants usually benefited from people attending free concerts, which have been canceled this summer.

Downtown Eau Claire Inc. surveyed small businesses to see if they wanted to go beyond sidewalk seating by using curbside parking stalls or even traffic lanes. But Allen said the responses wanted to limit the outdoor seating to sidewalks for now.

“Business owners weren’t quite ready to take that leap of closing blocks of streets,” he said.

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