Is it safe to eat outside at a restaurant?

is it safe to eat outside pandemic
Photo via Kurman Communications, Inc./Flickr

As the U.S. continues through the pandemic, many Americans are itching to return to normalcy—if they haven’t already felt that way for months. One of the most “normal” experiences is going out to eat with friends and family, and many restaurants have reopened their patios for socially distanced dining. But really, just how safe is it to eat outside at a restaurant? 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eating al fresco is considered a “more-risk” activity, as long as the restaurant does not also allow dining indoors. Here’s the chart:

  • Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up.
  • More Risk: Drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick up emphasized. On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least six feet apart.
  • Even More Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least six feet apart.
  • Highest Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least six feet apart.

Like every activity that entails leaving the house, there is a risk you could contract COVID-19. However, there are steps you and restaurant owners can take to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to make it safer to eat outside. 

“COVID-19 transmission is less likely to occur in outdoor settings vs. indoor settings,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja told Health. “Breezes in the open air help to whisk away infectious droplets very quickly, and if it’s warm and sunny, the risk of surface transmission would decrease—higher temperatures kill the virus more quickly.”

There isn’t a consensus among health experts about whether eating outdoors is worth the risk. When interviewed by Good Morning America, seven infectious disease experts had different comfort levels about when they would eat at a restaurant outside. 

Two of the seven experts interviewed said they would never take the risk during the pandemic, regardless of how their community is handling the virus. Concerns include the fact that you have to remove your mask to eat, and theoretically, the virus could then spread from table to table. Infectious diseases expert Dr. Supriya Narasimhan told Nautilus in January that she still believes it’s not safe to eat outside.

Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA under President Trump, told CNBC that he won’t step foot inside a restaurant and instead only eats outside. “I think the risk is too high to be in a confined space without a mask on with other people eating in that same location right now,” he said in early December.

It’s also essential to have the correct definition of an “outdoor” seating area. According to Vox, the less space and air movement a place has, the higher the risk it poses. Aim for patio spaces with plenty of access to fresh air, that do not feel stuffy, and that do not appear to be only using fans to recycle the air in the area. 

This, however, could also be complicated by the fact that winter has come to the Northern Hemisphere, making outside dining more uncomfortable. Some restaurants that are dependent on indoor dining for their survival say it’s safe and are pushing people to return to the indoors (and in Michigan, some restaurants are doing so in violation of the state’s guidance).

It probably hasn’t helped that the demand for outdoor heaters has risen dramatically, frustrating many restaurant owners in New York City. There’s also been controversy about whether dining outdoors in plastic bubbles is safe.

Some restaurants who still offer outdoor dining during the winter have also begun serving hot cocktails, like spiked apple cider and hot toddies, to keep their patrons warmer.

Meanwhile, Yelp now has a section on its app that lets users know if a restaurant is practicing social distancing and if its staff is wearing masks.

In late November, Los Angeles County shut down indoor and outdoor restaurant dining for at least three weeks. But that didn’t stop one L.A. County supervisor who voted to end outdoor dining to reportedly dine outdoors at a restaurant hours after her vote.

In late October, the Los Angeles public health director said 10-15% of local cases were tied to restaurant dining. By late January 2021, the ban was lifted.

It’s also dangerous for the restaurant employees. As written by Eater, “Restaurants’ often-tiny kitchens place cooks shoulder to shoulder, and those in the space can share the same air for hours. The reality is, restaurant employees will spend hours indoors with one another, and with people who take off their masks to eat.”

There’s also the possibility of cars impeding on an outdoor area. The Storefront Safety Council counts an average of four vehicles per year that crash into outdoor seating areas. Since restaurants began reopening during the pandemic, there have been 20 incidents, according to USA Today.

The CDC recommends restaurant owners take action to reduce the spread of the virus, including requiring frequent hand washing and face coverings. They should also add educational signage about the best safety tips around the restaurant and enhance sanitation measures. Though it doesn’t specifically mention eating outside in this report, the CDC also noted in September that “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”

According to Vox, people can judge how cautious a restaurant is by whether tables are six feet apart, whether staff and customers are wearing masks, and if there are visible enhanced sanitation measures. 

Diners can also mitigate the spread. Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University, told Health that people should only dine with your “circle of trusted people.” 

“This is not the time to widen that circle of trust unless you are in a very large open area, with plenty of room (six feet or more) between you and others who are not in your circle of trust,” Gershon said.

Anne-Marie Gloster, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told Vox that it’s essential to wear your mask as much as possible to keep yourself safe while eating outside at the restaurant. The same advice holds true for indoor dining, especially now that New York City is allowing customers to eat inside for the first time since the pandemic.

“Keep your mask on while waiting for your food, take it off and eat, and then put it back on when you are done is the best strategy,” Gloster said. “Make sure that you put your mask away and not just on the table unless you have sanitized it or you feel it’s a clean surface.”

When in doubt, delivery and take-out options are always the safest and lowest risk way to support a restaurant during the pandemic.

Is it safe:

Sources: CDC, Health, Good Morning America, Vox

Continue Learning