By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published May 15, 2020 at 11:01 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

There’s nothing like al fresco dining on a patio during our great Milwaukee summer. And as we approach sunnier more clement days, patios might just provide an innovative solution to safer dining as restaurant owners across the city consider their options for re-opening once the Safer at Home orders for the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County are lifted.

There’s mounting evidence that suggests that COVID-19 spreads less efficiently out-of-doors than inside enclosed spaces, provided that people also follow proper social distancing and safety protocols. That's good news for city policy makers as they search for creative solutions to ease the pressure that lockdowns have placed on the community and local economy.

Earlier this month, the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works and Milwaukee County Parks announced that they would temporarily close or limit vehicular traffic on approximately 10 miles of streets throughout the County to allow for improved bicycle and pedestrian use. 

But Tim Gokhman, director of New Land Enterprises and member of the East Side Business Improvement District (BID), has additional ideas for how the city’s streets might be used to both bolster business for struggling restaurants and allow diners to patronize them more safely.

Safer dining = better business

"Wouldn’t it be cool if people were tweeting about how Milwaukee was leading the charge with creative strategies for helping business AND making customers feel more safe?" he mused in a recent tweet referencing recent plans in Calgary, Canada to allow pop-up patios to boost revenue for local restaurants.

The Canadian initiative follows on the tail of countless other open-air dining solutions proposed in cities across the nation including Cincinnati, Ohio; and San Francisco, California.

Gokhman says he sees the prospect of opening up additional outdoor dining areas as a solid option for bolstering restaurant business.

"Because I see the effects of the pandemic at the Crossroads Collective, I know the stakes for area restaurants," he says. "For us, even with online ordering, business is down by at least 70%."

"I’m not sure what the capacity will be as we begin to consider reopening. But even if we are able to reopen at a 50% capacity, we still lose 50 of our seats. So I have to pick up the business for at least 40 more seats somewhere."

Will diners take advantage? 

Of course, another piece of the puzzle, Gokhman says, was determining if diners would take advantage of additional outdoor seating.

"As we started thinking about this, and put ourselves into the mindset of a consumer, the question became will diners feel safe enough to dine out again?" he says.

The majority of diners polled recently on Twitter say they wouldn’t be comfortable dining inside restaurants if given the opportunity.

However, diners responded far more amiably to the prospect of open air patio dining, particularly if it allowed for proper social distancing.

Innovative open air dining solutions

With that data in mind, Gokhman says the question became: how do you provide enough socially distanced seating on urban streets while also allowing for both pedestrian and bike traffic?

The answer: take advantage of parking lanes to create more spacious patios in areas like the North Avenue corridor.

To get the ball rolling, East Side BID director Liz Brodek has spearheaded conversations with other local BIDs, including the Historic Third Ward and Brady Street to brainstorm ideas, and engaged in planning conversations with the Milwaukee Department of Public Works to get the ball rolling with permits so that the patios can be rolled out by the time the Safer at Home restrictions are lifted.

One of the proposed plans would be to block off parking lanes in front of restaurants along the North Avenue corridor and repurpose the cement planters on the Avenue to demarcate parking lane dining areas and separate them from the existing bike lanes on the street.

"We’ve got to create spaces that make it easy for people to visit and support the restaurants they love," says Gokhman. "And because vehicle traffic is down, it’s the perfect time to experiment with innovation like this. It’s pretty low cost and low risk. So why not do it? After all, it’s a fact that every time you enhance the pedestrian and cycling environment in an area, businesses naturally do better."

Brodek says restaurants are largely supportive of the idea, with the majority replying favorably to a survey sent out by the BID.

"We’ve also talked with businesses on Farwell, so the plan could extend along that stretch or even on some of the side streets," she says, noting that if the plan is successful they hope to parlay the data collected from the pilot patio program into a larger plan to advance the neighborhood’s pedestrian friendliness overall.

"The pandemic has really driven home the importance of localism," she says. "Our area is already truly very walkable, with great proximity to the Oak Leaf Trail. And these plans serve to create spaces that not only appeal to residents, but put us on a trajectory to becoming the pedestrian-friendly district that we’ve always wanted to be."

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer

Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.

Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon. 

Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.