Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen.

By Shereen Siewert

Downtown restaurants are one step closer to having a new toolbox to help increase traffic and sales in the wake of COVID-19, after a proposal to expand serving areas and tweak other alcohol-related serving rules received preliminary approval Monday.

The proposal, presented by Compass Properties General Manager Mark Craig, received positive feedback from the Public Health and Safety Committee. Compass owns several buildings that house downtown restaurants.

Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen said officials are also welcoming similar requests from all area restaurants that wish to modify outdoor areas or repurpose parking areas for more outdoor dining spaces.

“We are looking to assist businesses city wide if we can during the summer season,” Rasmussen said.

The proposed changes, which aim to add outdoor seating and enhance curbside pickup and delivery options for downtown restaurants, include several facets:

  • Allowing seating to extend beyond the boundaries of storefronts along Third Street, with permission from neighboring businesses
  • Permit closing the street in the 300 and 400 blocks each Wednesday night from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. for “Dining in the Street.” This proposal calls for restaurants to place tables and chairs in the street to serve customers. Those sections would have marked sections representing different restaurants, placed in front of each establishment. Alcohol and food would be served.
  • Allow restaurants to use portions of The 400 Block patio with the tables and chairs for their patrons. Those sections would be clearly marked; alcohol and food would be served. Initially, the request was made only for The Mint Cafe and Townies, but was expanded to allow all downtown customers access.
  • Add two 15-minute stalls in the 300 block, adjacent to the existing 15-minute stall in front of Ciao Restaurant to accommodate curbside and pickup meals for Jalapeno’s, Ciao, Lemongrass, Polito’s Pizza and Sweet Lola’s. The 15-minute stall on the north end of the block would be eliminated under the proposal, which next goes to the Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee.
  • Remove the 4-foot tall bollards along Third Street to create more seating and table locations for outdoor dining.
  • Allow restaurants along Third Street to close off two to three parking stalls adjacent to their sidewalk seating to increase outdoor seating space.

Public Health & Safety Chair Lisa Rasmussen said the parks director will immediately add tables to the interior of The 400 Block, with appropriate spacing, for those who have purchased food from local businesses.

Customers will also be able to purchase alcohol for carry out in sealed containers to carry to The 400 block to enjoy with carry out food in addition to the expanded table service on the sidewalk and during the Wednesday night events.

The 4 p.m. start time remains in effect for the alcohol on The 400 block, and the businesses there were seeking that ability with dinner service in mind, so that was not an issue, Rasmussen said.

Discussing his proposal with the committee, Craig said that although these changes may be temporary, he’d like to see more outdoor dining in the years to come.

He also urged the city to move quickly so businesses can take advantage of the new rules as soon as possible.

“We have such a short season…perhaps 100 days,” Craig said. “Making a timely decision is important that these businesses can start to ramp up.”

The committee also discussed the possibility of allowing establishments outside of the 300 and 400 blocks of Third Street to adopt similar rules on a case-by-case basis.

Tyler Vogt, owner of Malarkey’s and Townies in downtown Wausau, posted a note of thanks on his Facebook page after the meeting.

“Huge shout out to the city of Wausau,” Vogt wrote. “Tonight’s meeting moved at breakneck speed in taking the first steps on giving our city’s restaurants and other businesses some opportunities and a TON a hope this summer season.”

All of the changes are expected to be in place in early June for use through the end of October, Rasmussen said.

“If we would need to revisit these adjustments next season based on the pandemic impacts, we will take them up again in the spring of 2021,” Rasmussen said.

The changes, being drafted now, will go to the full council on May 26.