Gov. Tim Walz has announced that restaurants and bars in Minnesota will be allowed to re-open for sit-down service effective June 1st. Sort of. The caveat is that sit-down service must be restricted to outdoor seating areas only, with criteria for maintaining social distancing amongst both guests and staff. Previously, restaurants had been allowed to provide menu services limited to drive-thru, delivery or pick-up options. Many restaurants have opened under the first set of restrictions and more still will likely try to re-open with the new outdoor seating option. As we approach the official start of summer, Minnesotans will be happy to have an entertainment option that is anywhere but their couch. But bar and restaurant owners have less to cheer about–even with the new option to serve guests, some bars and restaurants will stay closed; and many that choose to open will struggle to survive even if they re-open given the ongoing restrictions limiting customer traffic and revenue. In fact, notable restaurants such as Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis and Pazzaluna in St. Paul have already announced they are closing for good.
It’s been said repeatedly by hospitality professionals that if they can’t open 100% for business, it makes no sense to open up on a partial basis. Like all businesses, bars and restaurants have certain fixed and variable costs that require a calculated flow of customers to be viable. The reality is that these businesses operate on very tight margins and require strong customer flow to pay the bills; opening at restricted capacity won’t cut it. While bar and restaurant staffing is scalable, the rent is not, taxes and utilities are not. And planning a menu that relies on outdoor seating only, with the variability of weather and uncertain customer response will be very challenging. These are the basic business calculations to be considered. Yet, the unfortunate truth is that, notwithstanding these business realities, until bar and restaurant customers feel safe sitting inside next to a few hundred of their closest new friends, the core of these businesses is literally “off the table”.
The practical consideration for many bars and restaurants is how they could even open with outdoor seating? For a freestanding restaurant with a typical parking lot, it is likely that a limited amount of outdoor seating can be created, if it doesn’t already exist. A limited amount. Because it rains. And the wind blows. Or it’s really hot. And after August, it can become cold. In these circumstances outdoor seating is not viable. The option for outdoor seating is a real challenge for bars and restaurants that lack the space to set up any sort of outdoor seating, whether in a parking lot, sidewalk or greenspace. For bars and restaurants located inside a hotel or office building, it may be physically impossible to re-open. But even if it is possible, it likely will be necessary to negotiate with a landlord for the right to use an area that has not been part of the lease. It may also be necessary to secure local government approvals to set up tables on a public sidewalk or in a parking lot not otherwise approved for this purpose. These things take time and have added costs. Even then, this option likely will provide limited seating, under variable weather conditions for a limited duration. For some, good enough. But not for all, unfortunately.
The practical challenges confronting any business or other organization seeking to resume normal operations are daunting. That’s especially true for bars and restaurants. And even if the challenges can be addressed, the ongoing question is whether the employees and customers at these establishments will feel safe enough to venture out?