BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — Outdoor dining preparations are underway in Bloomington and Normal.

Starting next month, restaurants and other food establishments can reassemble their own street and sidewalk dining setups if they wish to do so.

Outdoor dining became popular in the Twin Cities, much like everywhere in Illinois, two years ago when COVID-19 bans on indoor dining were in effect statewide. Although the pandemic helped fuel its popularity, outdoor dining is something that was in the works prior to COVID-19’s existence.

“Outdoor dining provides that awesome sense of place that you’re in the middle of this beautiful historic downtown,” said downtown development specialist Catherine Dunlap.

Applications opened Monday in Bloomington for businesses who wish to expand their existing outdoor dining areas (if applicable) or build a seasonal setup.

“There’s an application online and they have to submit a site plan and sign a waiver as part of that,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap said the city planned on creating an ordinance for outdoor dining prior to the pandemic, but when indoor dining was banned by the Governor in 2020, it forced them to get the ball rolling on a program. She said the appetite for its appeal grew over time.

“The pandemic moved up the time table on that, now we want it to become an annual tradition in downtown Bloomington,” Dunlap said.

According to the city, multiple downtown businesses have already applied in just one day, including Maguire’s Pub which has taken advantage of the program for the past two years.

“Who doesn’t like to sit outside, enjoy some wings and a cold beverage,” said Maguire’s owner, Mike Hill.

Hill said it was popular with customers in 2020 and 2021 and allows the bar to offer outdoor amenities they normally wouldn’t have.

“I think it’s something I wish they’d done it 25 years ago when we opened, but it’s going to be great,” Hill said. “They’re trying to do things to make it like a big city, and by letting people dine and have a drink outside, it helps.”

In Normal, the town allowed for parklets and sidewalk cafes prior to COVID-19 as long as a business applied to do so.

“The parklet that Stave ran prior to the pandemic was very popular so we have no doubt it will be popular again, but during the pandemic, more restaurants were out in the street because they had to be,” said town planner, Mercy Davison.

Davison added that on-street dining was less popular in 2021 than 2020 in Normal due to indoor dining returning in some capacities as well as short staffing at restaurants.