Duluth Bar, Restaurant Owners Surprised, Disappointed at Walz’s Outside Seating Restrictions

Different issues arise with just outside seating.

DULUTH, Minn.- Minnesota Governor Tim Walz loosened restrictions on business beginning June 1st. Bars and restaurants can open on that date with outdoor only seating, serving no more than 50 customers at a time and with employees wearing masks.

“That extends to how do we find that new normal, restart Minnesota’s economy and I should say grow it from where it is,” the Governor said. “Many folks are back out there and how are we able to do it in a manner where we are able to measure very clearly how much that pot is simmering and how close it is to boiling.”

But for some bar and restaurant owners in Duluth, those “loosened restrictions” haven’t loosened much.

“I was surprised by this announcement and frankly a little disappointed,” said Jason Vincent.

Vincent, owner of the Boat Club in the Fitger’s Complex, said allowing restaurants statewide to open only outdoor seating is not realistic.

“The uncertainty of outdoor dining is tough in Duluth. It’s cold, rainy, the East wind coming off the lake and you’re done for. People don’t want to dine outside,” he said.

The new guidelines, Vincent said, are unfair to all the climates across the state of Minnesota. “While it may be great to have patios open in Downtown Minneapolis where it’s 75-80 degrees and they can get a great business out of it, up here it’s not quite like that.”

That unpredictable climate has proven problematic for Vincent’s 65-person patio in the past.

“I think all of last June if I counted correctly we had our patio open 3 days,” he said, “the entire month of June.”

And that nasty weather can hit in an instant. “I remember a couple of days last summer where I was literally holding little umbrellas as a storm blew in because it just happens so fast,” he said. Now if that happened, the allowed maximum of 50 people out there won’t be able to come in and finish eating.

Vincent said for now the weather is looking better for this June than last year, so he is staying “cautiously optimistic.” That’s an attitude some other restaurateurs are adopting.

“Now I am crossing my fingers for the nicest standards of weather that we see for the next, however long it will be,” Russ Smith said.

Over at the Crooked Pint Ale House on Kenwood Avenue, owner Smith is taking the loosened restrictions in stride. “It’s going to be extra dollars that can come in to keep the lights on and pay bills and keep us operating.”

“So I’ll take what I can get at this point in time,” he said.

With his patio at 45-person capacity and the ability to add seating in the walkway, he hopes to bring more employees on. Currently 20 are working, up from six since the Stay at Home order began.

And Smith says, him and his staff will have no problem weathering the cold, if you are.

“We’re going out go out of our way to accommodate you. We can dress warm too,” he said.

For now, Crooked Pint will continue curbside pickup and delivery. As for Vincent, in the meantime the Boat Club has started curbside pickup Wednesday, allowing him to bring a portion of his about 60 employees back. But it’s only a band-aid, he said.

“If anyone thinks we’re getting rich off this curbside and takeout, they’re very mistaken. This is barely paying the employees we have helping us and the food that’s coming in the door, that’s about it,” said Vincent.

But the Governor’s announcement has been disheartening for establishments who haven’t been utilizing those money-making services.

“A little disappointing because we’re not fit to have an outdoor patio,” said Jona Johnson, owner of Spurs on First Street.

So the bar will continue to sit bare–for who knows how long.

“It’s been tough. We have over $5,000 a month in bills just with the doors being closed,” she said.

Running the bar costs roughly $30,000 a month. So it would cost more to try and open at a limited capacity than to stay closed. “It wouldn’t be cost effective for us to be in, say it was 20, 10 capacity.”

“Even 50 capacity probably wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of being open, the cost of goods, all that stuff,” said Johnson.

The state should do more, she said, to include business owners like her in the conversation.

“It needs to be just less of a shell and more of like listening to the people who are experiencing what’s going on. I for one have not even received unemployment and I have a closed business and it’s been two months and I have a daughter, I’m a single mom,” she said.

Meanwhile, Vincent would like the state to craft these orders with every part of the state in mind.

“The one size fits all plan, I don’t know works for the while state that’s been the tough part,” he said. “Local restaurants and small independent restaurants in Duluth, we are ready with plans and we are ready to integrate customers back in and do it in a safe way.”

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