Sections of Kirkwood Avenue were teeming with IU students, Bloomington residents and out-of-town visitors at lunchtime last Sunday. After unanimous approval from Bloomington City Council, two parts of the street have been closed to automobile traffic on recent weekends to allow restaurants and shops more space for social distancing and outdoor diningin the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While no shops have set up in the closed sections yet, many restaurants on Kirkwood between the Monroe County Courthouse and the Sample Gates have moved into the roadway.
Masked patrons waited for white-tablecloth seating at the Uptown Cafe on a recent Sunday afternoon, while the Village Deli’s picnic tables were completely filled and FARMbloomington only had a few free tables. Nick’s English Hut, Jimmy John's and Lennie's were among the other restaurants that set up patio seating in the road. It was a sunny day with weather in the high 70s and low 80s, a bit cooler than in recent weeks, and Kirkwood was full of people walking and dining.
Before June, outdoor seating was limited to a few tables hugging the front of each restaurant, and diners had to talk over the sound of cars speeding by. Now the occasional biker or skater rolls by, but generally, pedestrians rule the street.
“We were wary of eating inside, but having the outdoor option makes us feel safe,” said Sam Sturtevant, a graduate student at Butler University.
He sat with his fiancée, IU graduate student Kerianne Schoff, under the shade of an umbrella at a picnic table outside the Village Deli, waiting for sandwiches and a plate-sized pancake.
“It was really neat that they closed it down so that we’re still able to have that dining experience outside,” Schoff said. “We love food.”
Sturtevant said he thought the street closure was good for the restaurants too, as they probably need the business.
“It’s definitely a great idea for the city,” said Sophie Hochstetler, a lead server at FARM and recent IU graduate. “Patio seating is really popular right now, despite the heat. There was a big protest on Saturday, so some of our customers were a little concerned but everything was fine.”
FARM reopened Aug. 12 after a long closure due to the pandemic. The restaurant plans on expanding outdoor seating into parking spaces when Kirkwood is open to car traffic, Hochstetler said. Crazy Horse, located a few blocks away on an area of Kirkwood not currently blocked, has already done this.
She said the extended patio seating is more work for servers, since they have to walk back and forth between the kitchen indoors and tables reaching across the street. Despite the extra walking, she said it’s worth it and that she was happy to return to work.
Hochstetler said the owner of FARM has been careful to make sure employees are safe and chose not to open earlier in part so that employees could continue receiving unemployment benefits. The staff was very busy Sunday as they handled indoor tables, outdoor tables, take-out orders, extra sanitation regimes and occasionally taking group photos for customers.
Karen Lobdell, a Zionsville, Indiana, resident ate outside at the Uptown Cafe with her family Sunday. She said they come to Bloomington to eat regularly and prefer to sit outside due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a primary caregiver for my parents who are seniors, so we have to be really careful. I think they’ve done a really good job here by spacing it out,” she said. "It's a big improvement. We love it!"