Teresa Boxleiter decided to eat out for lunch on Friday — literally.
Boxleiter sat at a table in the street outside Oolong Asian Cuisine in Dubuque, along with her son Wes Fairchild, 8, and her partner, Lucas Donnan.
“This is the first time Wes and I have eaten at a restaurant since mid-March,” said Boxleiter, who said she ate out at least twice per week prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that dramatically impacted restaurants.
The tables in the street at Oolong were part of an outdoor dining series sponsored by Dubuque Main Street. Over the past two weekends, the nonprofit worked with the city to temporarily close sections of streets, allowing businesses to seat more customers outside.
“We understand all of our retailers are suffering,” said Michaela Freiburger, program specialist with Dubuque Main Street. “Right now, we need to do something very quickly to assist our restaurants, to drive traffic into these areas and encourage people to shop downtown.”
Although Gov. Kim Reynolds has lifted the 50% capacity restriction for Iowa businesses, they still must adhere to social distancing guidelines, so most restaurants continue to operate with a limited capacity. By permitting restaurants to expand into the street, Freiburger said, owners can increase their capacity safely.
The expanded outdoor seating also eased health concerns for patrons such as Boxleiter, who said she felt more comfortable eating outside.
“Any time that I’ve been around other people, we’ve been trying to be outside,” she said.
On Thursday, most of Main Street between Third and Fourth streets was closed as part of the series.
Among the customers outside The Vault, 342 Main St., were Lisa Maas and John Miller, of Dubuque. The father and daughter hadn’t heard about the outdoor dining event, but when they saw the large white tent, they decided to take advantage of the alfresco experience.
“I prefer to eat outside anyway, even without COVID,” said Maas. “To me, it’s a little more comfortable.”
On the other end of the tent, Lauren Zimmer, Billie Friedman and Jackie Rupp, of Dubuque, were enjoying salads and one of The Vault’s giant pretzels.
“We wanted to come out and support local and new businesses,” said Rupp.
The friends appreciated the change of pace offered by the outdoor event.
“There’s not a lot of businesses around here that offer (outdoor dining), so it’s nice to see businesses finding ways to work around our new normal,” Friedman said.
The outdoor dining series concludes today, with outdoor dining from noon to 7:30 p.m. from eateries in the vicinity of First and Main streets.
ILLINOIS RESTAURANTS OPEN FOR limited INDOOR DINING
Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, restaurants also expanded their capacity, but they did so by moving inside.
On Friday, the state moved into Phase Four of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan for reopening in the wake of COVID-19. The new phase allowed restaurants to offer indoor seating again, at 25% of capacity.
“We’re very excited,” said Mary Knupp, owner of Frentress Lake Bar and Grill in East Dubuque. “It’ll be nice to be able to be somewhat back to normal again, even though we don’t have the full capacity.”
She said the return to indoor seating allows her to serve 40 more patrons.
Laura Hefel, owner of The Market House restaurant in Galena, now can add 11 indoor tables to the six she has outside.
In addition, she can serve at least some of her customers without having to climb the stairs.
“We’re on the second floor, so … we have a steep stairwell to climb from inside to outside,” Hefel said. “For us, (outdoor dining) is a little more challenging than just walking right out the door onto Main Street.”
For that reason, Market House traditionally has not offered outdoor seating. But Hefel said she will continue to do so this summer even now that indoor seating is permitted, since the limited capacity means she can’t make ends meet with indoor seating alone.
“In order for us to maintain the volume to pay the bills, we need to maintain seating in every single seat,” Hefel said. “So if some of those seats have to be outside on Main Street, that’s how it’s going to be.”
Knupp said she anticipates being “extremely busy” with the return to indoor seating, but Hefel is less sure that Illinoisans are ready to return to dine-in.
“I think it’s still split,” Hefel said. “You’ve got your folks with compromised immune systems that are still not comfortable even with coming outdoors for dining, and you have the folks that don’t even realize that COVID is out there. I think business will pick up a little, (but) I don’t think it’s going to be a huge swing.”