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La Crosse businesses could be takin’ it to the streets, as council votes Thursday on “Outdoor Cafe Program”



Closing businesses down was one way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Closing streets down could be another, in kind of the opposite fashion.

A couple committees and the La Crosse city council vote Thursday on what’s called the “Outdoor Cafe Program,” which essentially allows businesses to move outside — whether that’s the sidewalk, the street or a parking lot.

“This is a proven method,” Downtown Mainstreet Inc. executive director Robin Moses said Wednesday on La Crosse Talk PM. “It’s already happening in Madison. It’s happening across the nation. It happened in 1918, during the pandemic. People moved their dining rooms outdoors. They filled the streets and sidewalks, because that was known to be safer.”

The program is an expansion on what the city already passed in June, in allowing businesses to use the sidewalk Thursday-Sunday.

Now, depending on where, businesses could possibly use their neighbor’s sidewalk space — if agreed upon — or on-street parking spaces. Some businesses have parking lots, they could use for dining or sales. There might even be a case where a block could shut down and the entire street be put to use by businesses.

“There is an opportunity,” Moses said. “so let’s say, on lower Main Street, that block has three or four active restaurants right now. If they wanted to close that block — maybe on a Friday night or Saturday night — they could request to do some closed-street events. That’s something we’ll be looking at. Just an added option.”

Businesses could also apply for outdoor liquor licenses. Asked, though if say Duluth Trading Company applied for an outdoor liquor license, could it start slinging drinks? Moses laughed and said probably not.

Obviously, businesses have struggled since the pandemic began, and it’s only gotten worse in the months since the shutdown was lifted.

“Our businesses, for sure, have been on a roller-coaster,” Moses said. “Everyone was able to maybe make it for a few months but now those that have tried to open, they’ve had to shut down again if there’s been cases.

“There’s just the situation with the confidence of the community, and certainly, there’s also a certain amount of public shaming that happens on social media.”

A sweeping mask order would help businesses, as well. Moses noted most under the Downtown Mainstreet umbrella have all workers wearing masks and require them for customers — depending on the business. But a sweeping order would put the blame on someone else, and not the business — sort of where that public shaming comes into play sometimes.

“It would make it easier,” she said. “And, I’ve had a lot of businesses that have shared that they had wished that we would do that on the city or the county level or the state level, because they are in that tough situation.”

La Crosse County health director Jen Rombalski noted they are still looking at avenues to have some type of mask order.

As for the “Open Cafe Program,” Rombalski said she didn’t have any input on it — and wasn’t sure if her team did, as she was off last week — but did approve of the idea.

“Anything that helps our business be able to expand their space in a safe way, is a good thing,” Rombalski said at Wednesday’s public briefing. “And that allows for that open-air feature, which helps decrease the spread of Covid. I think those are good features to be considering.”

City committees begin meeting at 4:45 p.m. The city council will meet just after 5 p.m., and can be viewed here.

Information on the Outdoor Cafe Program can be seen here.

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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