In a Bid to Save Local Restaurants, Cities Open Streets and Parking Lots to Outdoor Dining

Outdoor dining areas spill into the street as part of Madison, Wisconsin's "streatery" program, designed to help local restaurants survive the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Outdoor dining areas spill into the street as part of Madison, Wisconsin's "streatery" program, designed to help local restaurants survive the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. City of Madison


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The popular "Streatery" program in Madison, Wisconsin could extend beyond its current October end date.

Two months after the Covid-19 pandemic closed bars and restaurants in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, the city’s mayor issued an emergency order to help business owners survive. 

Called the “Streatery” Restaurant Recovery Program, the proclamation allowed restaurants to temporarily expand outdoor seating into street parking spots and public sidewalks, with the goal of helping businesses increase “capacity while maintaining physical distancing requirements,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “I look forward to being able to enjoy our wonderful city outdoors and support our local restaurants.”

The program, which runs through Oct. 25, waives fees and lightens requirements for seating expansions. The city used a streamlined permitting process that also allows business owners to put outdoor seating areas in privately owned parking lots. It was created in “direct response” to requests from neighborhood associations and small business owners, city officials said, and is based partly on a similar initiative in Tampa, Florida.

“We used their guide as a template,” said Meghan Blake-Horst, the city’s street vending coordinator. “But we based our program off the needs of businesses, our outdoor vending season—Wisconsin winter versus Florida winter—what type of licenses and permits we already had in play, and the unique geography in Madison.”

Cities across the country have implemented similar outdoor dining programs to help restaurants struggling to survive prolonged business closures and decreased foot traffic during the ongoing pandemic. A handful of cities in Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, closed streets to allow restaurants to add tables and chairs for outdoor dining in June, once the county entered the first phase of its reopening plan. 

The programs have proven popular with both restaurant owners and diners, prompting officials in several cities—including Palo Alto, New York City and Denver—to extend the initiatives beyond their original expiration dates.

Madison’s program has flourished as well. To date, more than 39 businesses have expanded into the right-of-way, while five have set up dining in “cafe zones,” where businesses on a single street share space.

Outdoor seating edges into a bike lane in downtown Madison (Courtesy of the city of Madison)

“I have heard from several business owners that this has allowed them to stay in business and survive under this time of extreme uncertainty,” Blake-Horst said. “They’re not working at full capacity but it is allowing them the ability to survive, so hopefully they can thrive as we move out of Covid times.”

The city has received multiple requests to extend the program beyond October, and officials will begin meeting next week to discuss how to go about that process, given Wisconsin’s cold—and long—winters.

“I suspect that we will be extending the program to at least the end of the year,” Blake-Horst said. “But I would not be comfortable stating a new end date for the program.”

But even amid its success, the program is not a silver bullet for the city’s restaurants, she added. During the first month of the pandemic, more than two-thirds of restaurant employees nationwide had been laid off or furloughed, and the industry as a whole is expected to sustain more than $240 billion in losses by the end of the year, according to research from the National Restaurant Association

Coronavirus cases are decreasing in Madison’s county, but continue to rise in Wisconsin. Restaurants in the city are permitted to serve food outdoors, but can still offer indoor dining only at 25% of their usual capacity, provided there’s adequate room for 6 feet of space between tables, per a county health order that’s been in effect since July 7.

“Businesses are still struggling, scared and not sure how to plan for the future,” Blake-Horst said. “No business had a business plan with a Covid or pandemic contingency plan. Businesses still need access to capital and other resources to stay in business, but the Streatery Program has been a very important piece for their survival.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty and is based on Washington, D.C.

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