Is Outdoor Dining During Winter Really Safe?

Trust20 Contributors

February 11, 2021

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For the last year, restaurant operators have spent their time developing alternate operation models on the fly. The hospitality industry has always required a certain degree of agility and the pandemic created hurdles that no one could have imagined. Now that the country is in the midst of winter, restaurants in cooler and colder climates have had to grapple with how to serve guests while indoor dining remains limited or non-existent. Tents, domes, yurts, and igloos have popped up on patios, sidewalks, and streets - and diners are questioning whether or not the safety solutions are enough to protect them from the virus, and the cold.

NPR spoke with a number of experts on the topic and Richard Corsi, an air quality expert and dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University in Oregon says:

Not all outdoor dining structures are created equally. There's a wide spectrum. The safest that we're talking about is no walls — a roof. And then the worst is fully enclosed — which is essentially an indoor tent — especially if it doesn't have really good ventilation and good physical distancing.

Experts say if you are dining in individual structures that are thoroughly cleaned between guest service, the safety risks are minimal - as long as you are only dining with members of your household. Good Morning America interviewed seven infectious disease experts and one expert specifically called out that anyone you dine with in person should be considered with extreme caution.

The Seattle Times lists five things to keep an eye out for when choosing a restaurant for outdoor dining.

  1. You want to be sure outdoor structures are open on at least two sides to maximize air circulation. Heaters will help keep the air moving as the hot air rises and the cooler air falls.
  2. Tables should be six feet apart. The six foot rule applies whether you are outside or in. Staff should be trained to remind diners to respect the space and diners should feel confident in (politely) asking other guests to back up.
  3. Restaurant staff should wear masks and it must be mandatory for diners to wear them as well. Remember: you should be wearing your mask more often than you think.
  4. Outdoor dining with those from outside your household is technically permitted, but it is not recommended nor is it considered safe.
  5. Standalone enclosures are only considered safe if they are limited to one dining party with a max of five guests, aired out for at least 10 minutes after a party has left, and fully sanitized between uses.

If you're concerned about supporting your favorite restaurants and local businesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends taking food to go as your safest option. Check out our list of Trust20 Certified Restaurants to see local businesses who have had their health and safety solutions independently verified by an industry expert.


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Trust20 is the new standard of restaurant safety and diner comfort, based on 20 tactics by health and safety experts. Supported by Gordon Food Service and General Mills, Trust20 provides an independently verified certification of restaurant practices, training, and other resources to help restaurants create safe, healthy, and welcome spaces for diners. www.trust20.co, @Trust20USA

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