Why Enclosed Outdoor Dining is as Risky as Indoor Dining

Outdoor covered dining on East 3 Street in the East Village

By Kurt Stolz on 28 November 2020
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Since the start of the pandemic, readers of this magazine have seen stories with headlines that included “Why Indoor Dining is So Risky” and “How to Dine Outdoors Safely.” As outdoor temperatures in many parts of the world begin to fall, and restaurateurs who are only permitted outdoor dining adapt their al-fresco ad hoc dining rooms to compensate, dining under the stars may end up being as risky as dining in a crowded dining room.

Many restaurant owners have already equipped their outdoor spaces with heat lamps, and are adding tent-like structures and domes into the mix.  Some structures look like a tent pitched for a child’s backyard adventure, while others look far more like, well, an indoor dining room that was constructed on a series of parking spots.

FBT Editorial Director recently dined in a rather large and fully enclosed tent at the Columbus Park Trattoria in Stamford, but he had the tent to himself, as it was a chilly night.  (The food was excellent but the restaurant was clearly not observing state social distancing guidelines in its indoor dining room, he observed.)  Once the heat lamps were on, was there really any difference, being in a fully enclosed structure on Main Street in Downtown Stamford versus being indoors, had the tent been full and all things being equal otherwise?

The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.”

FBT Editorial Director Jonathan Spira’s “private” tent at the Columbus Park Trattoria

New York City is leading the charge in defining whether such outdoor spaces actually qualify as such and indeed may be alone in this respect. The Big Apple only allows restaurants to offer one-table capsules or so-called igloos provided the igloo has “adequate ventilation.”  Any outdoor dining areas that are walled in on three or more sides are treated merely as indoor dining rooms and subject to the same 25% capacity limitation.

The Hairy Lemon in New York’s East Village, which had drawn criticism during the summer for operating a bar-like service without selling substantial food, as a State Liquor Authority complaint put it, but has now mended its ways.  It offers outdoor, non-enclosed seating and each table is separated by a single plexiglass-like divider.  I felt safe sitting there enjoying a burger, and the neighboring tables, while occupied, seemed a mile away.

Meanwhile, restaurants are experimenting with a variety of enclosures and may be at the same time experimenting with their customers’ lives.  They are repurposing greenhouses and geodesic domes.

In a dining room, a ventilation system can create complex patterns of airflow and keep viruses aloft, while most outdoor enclosed spaces lack ventilation systems entirely, making them more dangerous than indoor dining rooms.

Restaurant owners and patrons may not realize that simply spacing tables six feet apart, in line with current social-distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, isn’t sufficient to safeguard diners.

In part because of these risks, Los Angeles County just banned outdoor dining entirely for a period of at least three weeks. Restaurants are still allowed to offer takeaway or delivery, however.

As for me, I’ll just be cooking at home for now.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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