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Outdoor dining isn’t quite “outdoors” anymore

Restaurants are getting creative with their winter setups. But some changes might make dining out riskier.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

To the surprise of many restaurant patrons and public health experts, outdoor dining has begun to migrate indoors. Or, as one Twitter user put it, it’s become “indoor dining on the sidewalk.”

Pandemic restrictions on restaurants vary by jurisdiction or state, with some enacting bans or requiring reduced capacity on indoor dining. Many restaurants, therefore, heavily invested in outdoor dining setups when stay-at-home orders were lifted or lightened. That drew in customers — at least until temperatures began to drop.

In parts of the country with colder winters, restaurants have drummed up temporary solutions to persuade guests to dine out for as long as possible, before snow-induced winter hibernation sets in. Many establishments have been tasked with figuring out how to make outdoor dining appear invitingly cozy, with little to no federal or state regulations on how streetery setups should look.

Outdoor restaurants have exchanged their bright Campari umbrellas for space heaters and heat lamps, canopy tents with vinyl flaps, and plastic bubble igloos decked out with string lights. Some have even hired workers to construct semi-enclosed wooden huts, which serve as restaurant-adjacent sunrooms with more dining space. Most of these creative architectural creations are intended to keep customers warm in the winter. It might not, though, keep them safe — or as safe as outdoor dining could be with uninterrupted airflow and plenty of space between patrons.

People have become more attuned to how performative measures championed by restaurants and bars (temperature checks and frequent surface sanitizing) don’t do a good job at protecting customers in high-risk situations. But with the cold weather, it seems that patrons have been lulled into believing that “outdoor” dining — even when it isn’t really outdoors — is not as risky.

An environmental engineering professor told Vice News that it’s no longer accurate to categorize a setup as “outdoor dining” if there are multiple walls or sides to an enclosure. It might be tempting to think that a semi-enclosed vinyl tent or bubble has just the right amount of outdoor air mixed with indoor warmth. However, the air exchange rate might be lower than that of a completely outdoor space.

“You’re actually creating an environment where the virus is within the enclosure,” Abraar Karan, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told the New York Times. Epidemiologists have emphasized how ventilation is crucial when it comes to preventing airborne spread of the coronavirus, which is more likely to occur in communal indoor spaces. There are no perfectly safe indoor environments during the pandemic, even if the space is well-ventilated or equipped with air purifiers. Plus, patrons aren’t able to wear masks when they’re eating or drinking. More often than not, streetery tents and huts are flimsy and small, and diners are usually seated closer than the six feet apart recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

William Bahnfleth, a Pennsylvania State University professor of architectural engineering, told me in October that restaurants should focus on increasing their indoor air change rate, which is the frequency at which air in a space is recycled. This reduces the likelihood of customers inhaling viral particles. Plexiglass partitions or vinyl flaps, for example, could impede the natural airflow of an environment. It’s a trade-off some restaurants have to consider: Airflow is important, but how long will a guest stay seated if they’re bombarded by chilly winds?

“My feeling is that it’s very hard to tell if a space is well-ventilated,” Bahnfleth said. “You might be able to tell if it’s poorly ventilated, but even that could be misleading. I would recommend that you dine entirely outside where there’s good air movement.”

Bloomberg reported that New York City is one of the few jurisdictions that have policies to define outdoor dining as part of its Open Restaurants program. If a restaurant has two or more open side walls, the city allows the setup to operate under outdoor dining guidelines (patrons six feet apart, and no parties larger than 10); if there are three or more side walls, the 25 percent capacity rule for indoor dining must be applied. For plastic domes, igloos, and other enclosed structures, there must be “adequate ventilation to allow for air circulation.” That said, it’s uncertain whether city officials are actively enforcing these rules.

Restaurant operators are spending thousands of additional dollars to erect their winter setups, as cities and states implement policies in response to climbing Covid-19 case numbers. These expenses are arriving at the end of a financially disastrous year. Small businesses have received little to no support from the federal government; some don’t qualify for assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or have held back from spending the money, out of fear that they won’t be able to repay the loans, Eater reported.

On top of the devil’s bargain restaurants have been forced to make, there’s the added concern about how severe the winter will be, and whether their setups are weatherproof and worth the investment. In New York City’s East Village, at least one wooden dining structure was toppled onto the street by strong gusts of wind. The restaurant owner told Curbed this was the third time it has happened, and that he’s unable to spend more money to make it sturdier (its construction cost $2,000).

Most cash-strapped businesses don’t have the means to invest in an entirely new outdoor setup to stay open through the winter months — especially when the promise of customers is fickle. More people are being urged to stay home due to rising case numbers, or deterred by the cold weather. It’s also possible that cities can shut down outdoor dining temporarily, as Los Angeles did for three weeks. It’s a lot of risk to winterize a space with little reward.

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