Is Outdoor Dining Actually Safe?

Around the country, restaurants have been devastated by the sharp decrease in foot traffic from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states experienced a temporary respite over the summer, when rising temperatures allowed people to dine and attend socially-distanced functions outdoors. Experts encouraged being outside whenever possible to lower the risk of coronavirus transmission (via Good Morning America). However, as temperatures have dropped in many states, a variety of makeshift outdoor spaces have emerged in an attempt to keep sidewalk dining comfortable for as long as possible. The question is, are these outdoor dining spaces really safe?

The answer isn't a straightforward one. There's a wide spectrum of outdoor dining spaces and setups. Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH, explained to Healthline, "There is an increased risk that comes with dining in restaurants, whether indoors or outdoors." That's because basic safety measures, like wearing a mask or social distancing, are nearly impossible to maintain when eating or drinking.

Can I eat outdoors safely?

If you're planning to visit a restaurant with an outdoor set-up, there are certain factors to keep in mind. First, not every outdoor structure is created equal. The ideal solution is a completely open space, which won't be as inviting to diners that live in colder climates. Barring that, any structure that has more than two walls is technically considered an indoor space (via Vox). Some states, like New York, have mandated that even makeshift outdoor spaces need to follow the regulations for indoor spaces if they're partially enclosed. That's because they don't provide the same ventilation as a true outdoor space, allowing droplets and air to linger in shared spaces longer (via InsideHook).

When choosing a restaurant with an outdoor set-up, you should look for those enclosed on no more than two sides, and ideally that use sanitization measures for airflow and surfaces between patrons. Those with heaters provide improved ventilation (via NPR). And of course, make sure your servers are wearing masks and any other protective equipment as appropriate.

If you want to support your local restaurants while minimizing your risk, ordering take-out is still the safest way to go.