As Gov. Tim Walz reportedly readies a plan to incrementally reopen bars and restaurants across Minnesota during the COVID-19 pandemic, East Grand Forks leaders made way for a restaurant there to put together an outdoor patio space that, the argument goes, would allow for more physically distant seating and be a financial lifeline.

City Council members voted 6-1 on Tuesday to designate two parking spaces near Mamma Maria’s, a downtown Italian restaurant, for pickup and delivery orders. That means the restaurant can convert two existing pickup and delivery parking spaces near its front entrance into a bistro-style outdoor dining space that’s modeled after “parklets” in Grand Forks and elsewhere.

The 25-by-16-foot patio could safely seat 27 people, according to Rebecca Driscoll, one of the restaurant’s stakeholders and grandmother of Kristen Scheving, one of its owners.

Restaurant staff said on Tuesday afternoon that neither Driscoll nor Scheving were readily available for comment, but Driscoll told council members at a meeting last week that she believes adding safe, comfortable outdoor dining space will be the only way to keep food and beverage establishments from failing.

“We’re very excited about having an attractive, welcoming space that can help Mamma Maria’s stay alive,” Driscoll said. “And, I hope, help the city by keeping our visitors coming and spending dollars in the city.”

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The restaurant couldn’t operate the patio under a series of executive orders Walz signed this spring that were designed to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The governor did not renew a “stay at home” order last week, opting instead to replace it with a “stay safe” plan that still kept restaurants and bars closed to dine-in traffic. That means Mamma Maria’s could not operate the patio on the day Eastside council members OK'd the move.

The two newly designated parking spots would be considered “non-exclusive,” which means any other restaurant can use them. That wouldn’t be the case for the patio, which is privately owned.

Across the Red River, leaders at Grand Forks City Hall approved a three-year parklet program in June 2016. That meant patios similar to the hoped-for one outside Mamma Maria’s can be placed in front of Brick & Barley and Rhombus Guys Brewing Company. Grand Forks City Council members unanimously voted in March 2019 to extend the program for another year.

City leaders in East Grand Forks are set to review the parking spot designation no later than March 2021.