RESTAURANTS

As COVID-19 cases rise, local restaurants try to extend patio season with fire pits, heaters, 'igloos'

Bartender Chad Webber turns on a space heater Oct. 31 on the patio at the Map Room in Cedar Rapids. (Nick Rohlman photos
Bartender Chad Webber turns on a space heater Oct. 31 on the patio at the Map Room in Cedar Rapids. (Nick Rohlman photos for The Gazette)
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For months, the Map Room restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids has relied on outdoor seating to carry it through the pandemic. “We expanded our patio quite a bit, added more seating to it at the beginning of the summer,” co-owner Christina Springman said. “That pretty much is what got us through the summer.”

But now that the warm weather is waning and snow has fallen more than once, she worries about what they’ll do next. The small bar and burger joint reopened its dining room in midsummer, but Springman said many customers still aren’t comfortable dining inside, especially as coronavirus cases are spiking in Iowa.

“As it has gotten cold and people are feeling less comfortable, sales have gone way down. I’m very worried,” she said.

That worry prompted her and her husband to add heaters around their outdoor tables, hoping to expand patio season as long as possible.

“Some people come dressed to sit on the patio. There’s definitely still a population of people who are not ready to dine in yet,” she said.

Others are noticing that trend as well and are working to extend outdoor dining options as long as possible.

In Iowa City, the Downtown District’s “Winter Up” program is awarding grant money to businesses in the district working to weatherize their patios. That could include purchasing heaters, wind breaks, furniture, or other design needs. It is making $25,000 available for applicants, but additional funds are expected to be announced from other partners. A maximum of $1,750 will be awarded per business and provided on a rolling basis until the funds are depleted.

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The district also created a patio weatherization guide with ideas for how to extend the patio season and responsibilities of business owners. Downtown District Director Nancy Bird said the district is working with city government and Fire Marshal Brian Greer to allow patios to stay up throughout winter. Many of the downtown patios are on city sidewalks and parking spaces. In previous years needed to be dismantled in the winter to allow for snow removal. Businesses that want to keep their patios up will be responsible for snow removal, Bird said, and must apply for a permit. Businesses also can apply for the grant to create warming areas for customers waiting to pick up carryout orders.

“Iowa has a very variable winter weather pattern — there are a lot of places with patios that would be great to stay open if you dress for it. If you pack it up and put it all away, you lose the chance to use it,” Bird said. “If someone wants to do this work, we’re here to support them. I think the notion is that if it’s there and it’s up, there will be days you’re not going to use it, but at least you have an option to use it.”

She pointed to places in Europe where outdoor dining continues throughout the winter.

“They do this in other cold winter areas, where patios are open all year-round,” she said. “It’s important to remind people to continue to support these businesses so they make it through this winter and we keep our strong cluster of independent businesses.”

One business the district is working with is Mammita’s Coffee.

The cafe had been open only three months when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Iowa and has had to adapt to stay open. Originally, owner Jacqueline Milian just served coffee and pastries, with a flower shop in the back and planned to open a quinceanera party planning space. When the pandemic shut down parties and students and office workers stopped coming for coffee, she had to pivot. She built out a kitchen space and started serving Latin and Cuban-inspired food such as Cuban sandwiches, breakfast burritos and quesadillas and tostadas.

Now she’s opened up the backyard of the building as a patio, complete with TV for watching Hawkeye football. The space also can be reserved for private parties. For the first football game of the season, a small group rented it and she catered Cuban food for their watch party.

“It was basically a private yard full of weeds,” she said. “We’re leveling the yard and adding pea gravel ... A friend helped build patio furniture. I’m from Florida, so I wanted to give it a little vibe of being at the beach. I hung greenery around the fences and put up sun shades with twinkle lights.”

The next step will be adding fire pits and long heat warmers to keep the space viable as long as possible, she said.

“That way people can come and enjoy the outdoors a little bit longer without freezing to death and enjoy game days,” she said.

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At Old Neighborhood Pub in Cedar Rapids, co-owner Jeremy Van Hoeck said he would like to see support like that for Cedar Rapids businesses. He has added a projector to their patio and hopes people are willing to brave the elements as long as possible.

On Saturday, as they watched coronavirus case numbers rise precipitously in Linn County, he and his wife, Andrea, made the tough decision to close their dining room to inside customers once again.

With family members and staff who are at high risk for complications from the virus, he said they felt it wasn’t worth it.

“We may not stay in business,” he said. “But do we be concerned about that or do we worry that we could kill someone?” What he would like, he said, is more support from the government and public health authorities. Clear rules and signage he could print explaining mask requirements and social distancing mandates, for example, so he could point to when customers argue with him.

In the meantime, he hopes people will keep ordering carryout and sitting on the patio even as the days turn brisk.

Other places are adding outdoor dining “igloos,” clear plastic bubbles that first started popping up on Corridor patios last winter. Businesses can put space heaters inside, and for customers, they can serve as small private dining areas.

Cal Corrin, co-owner of House Divided Brewery in Ely, recently purchased three of the igloos for his brewery’s patio.

“We were just searching for ideas for what can we do to get people to show up and support our business. We’ve been open just over a year,” he said. “Last fall we had pretty good crowds and some weekends would be standing room only. We can’t do that this year, and a lot of people don’t want to go out. We thought we’d add those to the patio and see if they attracted any new customers.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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