As shops struggle with coronavirus restrictions, White Bear Lake closes street to help

With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, fewer customers were shopping and dining at the businesses in White Bear Lake’s downtown.

The city’s solution? Filling the street with picnic tables.

Restaurants and storefronts statewide have taken a financial hit since the spring when the spread of the deadly virus prompted many to close. Those that have reopened are operating at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. Fewer customers means less business.

White Bear Lake’s downtown collection of shops — like many of Minnesota’s quaint cities — is integral to the community. Most summers, hotels are full, and restaurants are busy serving residents and tourists. This year, hotels and retailers are seeing a revenue decrease of nearly 30 percent, according to city officials.

In response, the city of White Bear Lake, as well as its Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation, joined forces to start the ReGrow White Bear Lake initiative in late April. They immediately started reaching out to local business owners to see how they could help.

The business and restaurant owners answered: Customers need a safe and inviting place to sit.

STOPPING TRAFFIC

People enjoy socializing and dining on picnic tables arranged along Washington Square in downtown White Bear Lake. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

With permission from the city council, the ReGrow White Bear Lake committee blocked vehicle traffic from Washington Square between Third and Fourth streets and filled the road with picnic tables. Additional tables were set up in a parking lot on Third Street and Cook Avenue.

The entire arrangement was free; the 20 picnic benches were donated by a local construction company.

“We’ve been very creative and scrappy to help businesses succeed through COVID-19,” said Lisa Beecroft, a member of the Regrow White Bear Lake committee.

The committee surveyed residents and businesses to see what people think about the outdoor seating arrangements since they opened on June 1. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, says Beecroft.

Cheryl Lanigan lives in the area and has used the tables a few times to have lunch with former co-workers. Washington Square looks a lot different than it does most summers, she says.

“There used to be live music all the time, and food stands and outdoor markets. It’s a lot quieter now, but the tables are a good idea,” she said.

From inside the Anchor Coffee House in downtown White Bear Lake, owner Brad Atkinson sees the picnic tables on Washington Square fill up daily. People use the space for business meetings, family dinners and school group activities, he says.

Though his coffee shop now offers indoor seating to 50 percent capacity, people are still wary and prefer to drink and dine outside if given the option, Atkinson says. And since the tables were added, more people have been coming through his shop.

“It’s been a game changer for us. If we didn’t have the tables, we’d be in a much worse place,” he said.

CITIES ARE ADJUSTING

White Bear Lake’s pop-up picnic tables are just one example of how cities across Minnesota are adding more public outdoor seating to encourage residents to eat and shop local.

Hastings officials blocked off parts of streets and parking lots in May so restaurants could expand their footprints.

Stillwater amended liquor licenses to allow restaurants to sell alcohol for takeout meals and allowed resolved open container laws in nearby parks.

“People are bringing their food and drinks to Lowell Park, and it’s worked out so well that we’re probably going to keep that going pretty much forever,” Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said.

RIPPLE EFFECTS

Bill Foussard runs the White Bear Country Inn four blocks away from Washington Square. To keep his hotel afloat during the pandemic, he’s started pitching rooms as temporary offices for people working from home.

His business relies heavily on the popularity of the rest of White Bear Lake, he says. Even though he’s not located directly downtown, the additional outdoor seating has been beneficial to him, too.

“In the hotel business, we are nothing without the local businesses and tourism. The busier the city is, the busier we are,” Foussard said.

The city also allowed restaurants in White Bear Lake to add more outdoor seating this summer. Daron Close, who owns and operates four restaurants along the lake, recently expanded his patio so he can seat more customers. He’s glad White Bear Lake officials recognized that more outdoor seating is vital to operating a restaurant during coronavirus, he says.

“The city could’ve added a lot of red tape to things,” he said. “But they knew time is of the essence and if we didn’t open restaurants soon, there’s no way we would survive next winter.”

Donatelli’s, an family-owned restaurant located in a strip mall on the outskirts of White Bear Lake, doesn’t have a patio or the space to build one. But the city granted owner Trish Appleby permission to allow customers to bring their own picnic gear and eat in the parking lot, she says.

FUTURE WILL BE NO PICNIC

People enjoy socializing and dining on picnic tables along Washington Square in downtown White Bear Lake on Thursday, August 6, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Adding outdoor seating has been a popular fix, but it’s not a long-term plan. The picnic tables downtown will likely be removed in the fall, according to the ReGrow White Bear Lake committee. Patio season only lasts until the temperature drops.

Before restaurants could reopen for dining in, Close was keeping his four restaurants afloat by offering curbside pickup services. From his restaurant Acqua, he sold everything from food off the menu to groceries, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

As summer nears an end, Close is gearing up to increase curbside pickup operations again.

“It went well the first time and helped us through the spring,” he said. “But it’s hard mentally not to have the interaction with customers and not be able to show our abilities as servers and cooks.”

At the Anchor Coffee House, Atkinson just installed a top-of-the-line air ventilation system, which he hopes will encourage more customers to stop by in the colder months. But Atkinson still worries that he won’t generate enough revenue once the benches are gone.

“That’s what I’ve been losing sleep over for the last month. The truth is, I’m fearful our business won’t make it through the winter,” he said.


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