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 restaurants are implementing safety solutions that are enough to protect them from the virus, and the cold.
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. Remember that every individual person holds their own biases and each person may have a different definition for what "safe practices" mean in their lives. 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.
- You want to be sure outdoor structures are open on at least two sides to maximize air circulation. Keep an eye out for fans and heating systems. Heaters will help keep the air moving as the hot air rises and the cooler air falls bringing in a regular supply of fresh air.
- Tables should be AT LEAST six feet apart. The six foot rule applies whether you are outside or in and should be strictly enforced. Staff should be trained to remind diners to respect the space and diners should feel confident in (politely) asking other guests to back up. Diners should also consider whether or not a restaurant has placed a cap on the number of diners that are allowed to be seated in one party.
- Restaurant staff should wear masks and it must be mandatory for diners to wear them as well. If you are not wearing your mask, don't just leave it on the table. Bring along a plastic bag or put it in your pocket to make sure it remains as clean as possible. Remember: you should be wearing your mask more often than you think.
- Outdoor dining with those from outside your household is technically permitted, but it is not recommended nor is it considered safe. Diners should think about whether they trust the people they are dining with to maintain the same level of safety precautions in their lives.
- 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. Don't be afraid to ask restaurants to get specific about what their safety solutions involve. Bonus points to any restaurant that has clearly stated exactly what their protocols and made the rules exceedingly clear to diners.
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. Many restaurants have put significant effort into optimizing their off-premise dining operations and they have adjusting their food handler expectations to help diners bring excellent dining experiences into their homes. Diners should consider how the restaurants they support are communicating their safety solutions. Transparent and frequent communication is a sign that a restaurant is confident in their health and safety solutions and an indication they take diner trust seriously. Check out our list of Trust20 Certified Restaurants to see the businesses in your city who have had their health and safety solutions independently verified by an industry expert.
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.