Over the last 10 weeks, Alexandria restaurants have banded together to come up with ways to open safely. After seeking counsel with each other and medical professionals, they were waiting for the go-ahead to open up safely.
After the stay-at-home order lifted, restaurants around the state could open with outdoor dining. Tables must be six feet apart, with a maximum capacity of 50 customers. Reservations are required, with no more than six seated at each table. Servers are required to wear masks, and customers are encouraged to do so too.
While it's a small start for restaurants to bring in revenue, Kent Kopp of the Pike and Pint Grill says it's not sustainable.
"There's a lot of issues that come with outdoor dining," Kopp said. "If there's rain or bad weather, you don't get business that day. Restaurants are hemorrhaging money. We already missed Memorial Day, which is something a lot of places bank on. We appreciate the people buying gift cards and ordering takeout, but it's not enough."
Kopp is one of the critical pieces to the group of Alexandria restaurants that have joined forces. He started the email chain that led to group meetings with various store owners. While he and other owners have written many letters to Minnesota's representatives, they decided it was time to make the point visual.
Marching in the rain
While the weather wasn't ideal on Tuesday evening at the Big Ole statue, it was a fitting representative of the consequences for exclusive outdoor dining. Local restaurant owners and other supporters decided to dress in black and march in the rain along Second Avenue to symbolize the potential death of small businesses. Escorted by a hearse with Kopp at the front of the pack, over 200 people walked several blocks from Winning Edge to Big Ole.
"The motivation was to get awareness behind this," Kopp said. "We aren't lashing out towards other businesses that are open because we want them to thrive and survive. But when we are going around town and seeing people standing right next to each other in all of these places when we are 100% willing to follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines, why are we being left behind?"
With picketed signs in hand, gatherers convened at the Big Ole statue for speeches from Kopp and other dine-in restaurants. Kopp's message was simple: Get back to common sense.
"I'm 52 years old, and I've made it through several financial crises," Kopp said. "We, as a country, find a way to come together and look for common ground. What's disheartening to see is a culture war on social media. For me personally, I wear a mask when I'm in the grocery store. I know it doesn't protect me, but it protects other people. That's something that's gotten so political."
"That's an example of how common courtesy and common sense have gone out the window," Kopp said. "I want people to shed their political views for a second and really think about the situation. People believe that if they are one side of the fence or the other, that is how they have to act or believe for every topic out there. I think most of us are in the middle somewhere. I think this is a good topic for people to step back and decide what's right and wrong."
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, was in attendance and took the megaphone in front of the mass. He talked about how what they are doing is essential and how they should keep reaching out to legislators during this process.
The point of the march, organizers said, was to provide information to people who don't have the facts.
"Our group isn't interested in reaching people that have a firm opinion on the matter," Kopp said. "Those people aren't going to change their minds. There's a lot of people in the middle that aren't really sure how to feel. We want to let them know that we are safe, and they can trust us that we want to do things the right way. We wanted a shock factor because we don't think people in our community understand how dire the situation is."
While Kopp was happy with the turnout, he understands how unfortunate the timing was. Following the police incident in Minneapolis on Monday, public outrage has conquered the headlines around the state. Kopp wants to reassure the public that the stance of Alexandria restaurant owners wasn't to make light of the Twin Cities situation.
For now, restaurant owners are going to have to wait to seat people inside. For Patrick Sieve and the Traveler’s Inn, they are taking advantage of the potential business.
The Traveler’s Inn usually doesn't have outside dining facilities. That was until they decided to transform their back parking lot into an area with 50 tables.
"For years, it's been the family parking lot," Sieve said. "I had superior boxes made for us to box us in back there, and a company came in and put asphalt back there and coat it black. We brought tables, chairs and lights in as well. We've worked pretty hard at it for the last two weeks."
The Traveler’s Inn went through with this plan before Walz announced the dining regulations.
"We figured that people might want to eat outside with the future so uncertain," Sieve said. "We don't know how long this is going to last, whether it's the end of the summer or going into next year. We don't see the end in sight yet."
One of the investments Sieve made is two massive menus for his outside pato.
"We were encouraged to have paper menus, but we thought it would be a good idea to get two big menus that we can mount outside," Sieve said. "They're 10 feet tall and four feet wide. People can look up and see them from a distance without us having to give them menus. In our case, 80% of the people know what they are going to get before they sit down."
Sieve appreciates his loyal customer base. In these hard times, they've still been ordering takeout regularly. When customers return to the Traveler’s Inn, it's not going to be a different dining experience.
"There's not going to be anything on the tables," Sieve said. "When we serve pancakes, they'll get pre-portioned syrup. Salt and pepper will be in the little packets. I think we've come up with a pretty good system in the last 10 weeks."
Time for change
Like Sieve, Kopp is fortunate to have the people in Douglas County rally around small businesses in this time of need. However, he realizes that time is running out.
During his speech on Tuesday night, Kopp relayed the hard truth that if these restrictions on restaurants continue, many doors won't open again. However, he doesn't want to take away from the efforts that people on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are experiencing.
"None of what we are doing is intended to belittle the pain and the suffering that's out there for people," Kopp said. "All of those people on the front lines are people we greatly respect. We are so thankful for them, and our thoughts and prayers go out to them."