This northern European city has moved its bars and restaurants outside. Will customers follow?

Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic nation of Lithuania, has created a giant outdoor café so its restaurants, bars and eateries can safely reopen. But is it a viable long-term solution that can be replicated in other cities that are preparing to lift COVID-19 restrictions?

A 'giant outdoor café' gets restaurants open again in the capital of Lithuania

Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic nation of Lithuania, is moving its bars and restaurants outside into non-traditional public spaces. The move is meant to help businesses deal with physical distancing requirements. (Mykolas Alekna)

After six excruciating weeks of being in a near lockdown, Lithuanian restaurateur Eimantas Lumpickas is relieved to finally have customers to serve again — but he's never done it quite like this.

For the first time, all of the tables at Drama Burger, his upscale gastro café in the capital, Vilnius, are outdoors.

Some are in a newly created seating area on the sidewalk and others will soon be in a park down the street, 40 metres away, that's never seen table dining in the past.

"The restaurant is alive again," said Lumpickas, as he relocated the tables and chairs outside.

"The plan, of course, is brilliant. We are listening to the government's guidance; we are keeping the distance between the tables; staff are wearing masks and gloves and using sanitizers."

Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius, says more than 200 businesses have applied to move their tables and restaurants outside. He says the city plans to provide quick approval. (Mykolas Alekna)

Just shy of two weeks into Vilnius's outdoor dining experiment, Lumpickas says, his customers are clearly happy to be out socializing again, though he remains uncertain how profitable this new arrangement will be.

"The government has only allowed us to sit two people [together] or families so there is still not the usual crowd," he said.

"And the weather was not that great."

Lithuania, a Baltic nation of 2.7 million people, has more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19 and 49 deaths, according to the global coronavirus tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine in Baltimore.

The country began easing COVID-19 restrictions at the end of April, reopening businesses, services and public spaces in stages, and will officially lift the countrywide quarantine on May 11.

Giant café

The mayor of Vilnius has touted the idea of turning his city into a "big open air café" as a measure that can allow restaurants to start serving customers again without the health risks from COVID-19 that come with being too close together inside. 

Infectious disease experts say it's generally much harder to contract the virus in outdoor settings, provided people maintain a two-metre distance from one another.

"I would say it's already working," said Remigijus Šimašius, who showed up for his interview on a bicycle.

Vilnius has a quaint old-town feel, with narrow cobblestone streets and brightly painted buildings. While putting tables on sidewalks outside cafes is fairly common, this experiment envisions something far grander, with parks, paved squares, parking lots and closed-off streets also being made available.

Restaurateur Eimantas Lumpickas plans to set up 10 tables in this park around the corner from his restaurant. With another 15 tables on the sidewalk, he says it should provide him with the volume of customers he needs to remain in operation. (Mykolas Alekna)

"More than 200 [businesses] already declared they do want to use these spaces," said Šimašius.

"This simple measure is a very important innovation — very simple but very, very important [during] this time of our fight with the COVID virus and quarantine."

Restaurants and bars in Vilnius have been reopened for outdoor customers for two weeks. (Mykolas Alekna)

While many Canadian cities have been allowing restaurants to cater to takeout orders, only a few (such as those in Manitoba) have allowed customers to be served outside on outdoor patios.

Canada's restaurant industry worries that when businesses are eventually allowed to reopen indoor seating, spacing requirements may only let them operate at 50 per cent capacity. So, the prospect of spreading into streets and other public areas could be the difference between being profitable or not.

Restaurants threatened

"We like the idea," said Charles Gauthier, president of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. He has been touting a similar concept.

"I think if we don't do it, we risk losing the flavour of our city."

Gauthier says it's inevitable that some city streets will have to become narrower for vehicles so that there will be more space on the sides for other activities.

"It will likely involve removing the curb lane, just to maintain that social distancing," he said.

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, one of 13 global mayors appointed to a COVID-19 recovery task force, says it's essential for cities to get more creative as they try to adapt to the challenge of living with the virus.

Shared streets

"There are less cars running right now, and I think it's time to rethink how we share the public space outside," she told CBC Radio's The Current in an interview this week.

She said they are creating "family and active streets," where motorists, cyclists and pedestrians are "equal."

Cool or rainy weather is one of the biggest concerns about hosting customers outdoors. (Mykolas Alekna.)

Former Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian, a longtime proponent of getting cars off roads to make way for other activities, says Vilnius's approach speaks to the experimentation that's needed going forward.

"All of this is kind of a puzzle exercise — treating the life between buildings in our cities as the space to do a lot of things. And if we don't rethink the amount of space we've surrendered to cars, there isn't going to be enough space for any of these other things."

Best case

"I think it's the best you can actually do in this scenario," said Vilnius IT worker Tomas Kasnauskas, who was out for lunch with his wife and their dog over the weekend when the sun was out.

"But I hope one day we have umbrellas." 

His observation underscores the fact that the success of Vilnius experiment and others like it will always be subject to the unpredictability of the weather.

A street closed off to vehicles is pictured in Vilnius. (Mykolas ALekna)

"It's not insurmountable," said Vancouver's Charles Gauthier of the challenges posed by bad weather.

Multiple companies have approached him about solutions, he said.

Suppliers of tents and heaters, often used in the movie industry, have told him there are many ways to make outdoor dining enjoyable, even when the weather doesn't co-operate.

In Vilnius, some of the staff and customers CBC News spoke to also expressed concerns that having even a limited number of people gathering together might lead to another wave of infections.

"We are worried that if there is some virus expansion, we might be closed again," said Simonas Gedutis, of the Paviljonas bar and café.

Still, Gedutis said he believes even with the need for staff to wear masks and gloves and have regular temperature checks, some form of outdoor dining will likely become the norm for restaurants in cities all over the world.

"It's a really good starting point to operate."

WATCH | Take a stroll through the new physically distanced central core of Vilnius:

Cities making changes to allow for physical distancing

3 years ago
Duration 5:56
Cities across Canada and around the world are making modifications to physical spaces as they begin to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's a look at some of those changes.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.