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Helsinki launches massive open-air food court in Senate Square

The city is using summery planters to separate customer groups and ensure social distancing.

Senaatintorille rakennettava terassialue.
Helsinki's mass open-air dining experiment opened for business on Wednesday. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

Helsinki city officials made good on a pledge by mayor Jan Vapaavuori by opening a large al fresco dining area in the capital's centrally-located Senate Square on Wednesday.

The city has described the 480-seat terrace as a unique experiment that will provide diners with a choice of eats and drinks from establishments ranging from burger joints to wine bars, bakeries and even world cuisine.

Customers will be able to order from a total of 16 different kiosks.

Antti Kuitunen of the Via Tribunali pizzeria in the Kallio district, said there was some pressure involved in the project given that it was all put together in just a few weeks.

"When you have to build quickly, it requires some man-hours," he told Yle. And it was a race to the finish, since the traditional pizza oven ordered from Italy for the venue arrived just two days before Wednesday’s opening.

Story continues after photo.

Senaatintorille rakennettava terassialue.
Kiosks have been placed along the perimeter of the square. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

"This is the first time we’ll be bringing an authentic Neapolitan pizza oven outdoors. As far as I know it hasn’t been done before in Finland. We were able to warm up the oven for the first time just yesterday and it will be fun to try it out with customers today," Kuitunen said.

When Vapaavuori floated the idea of opening up Senate Square for outdoor wining and dining, he said his intention was to revive the downtown area, which had fallen silent during emergency measures introduced to slow the coronavirus epidemic.

Because of the virus, the large terrace aims to ensure that customers remain safely distanced from each other. As a result, there will be no table service. Instead, all of the food and drink establishments have been set up on the perimeter of the square, where patrons can make their purchases, while all of the seating is in the middle.

Kuitunen said that other safeguards currently used by restaurants will also be available. "Hand sanitiser, hand washing stations and rubber gloves will be in heavy use," he noted.

Story continues after photo.

Kukkia Senaatintorin jättiterassilla.
Flower planters help create the feel of an allotment garden and also serve to separate customers. Image: Kristiina Lehto / Yle

Otherwise the Helsinki landmark has been transformed into a kind of urban garden, with roughly 200 planters installed to showcase more than 3,000 flowers and plants. The planters themselves do double duty, providing a charming conservatory atmosphere, while serving to separate groups of customers to ensure they are safely distanced from each other.

Designer Linda Bergroth said that cobblestones in the square are laid out in three-metre grids, making it easier to set up safety distances.

"There is a table in the centre of each grid. The inspiration is an allotment garden so people are surrounded by plots of plants and there is room to move about between them without any bottlenecks," she explained.

Bergroth said that she believes that people will be tempted to come and experience the unique giant terrace.

"[They will come for] the feeling of community and a shared experience, now that all the big events are off. The state of emergency has created something new that might not have been done otherwise," she added.

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