If outdoor dining is the safest way to eat at a restaurant, what will happen when winter comes?

outdoor dining winter coronavirus
Photo via Ruth Hartnup/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Restaurant dining has shifted to outdoor spaces due to the pandemic
  • As winter approaches, restaurants in colder areas are seeking solutions
  • Outdoor eating simply will not be sustainable for everyone

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, hopes were high that the virus would be long gone by winter. But by early September, the end of COVID-19 is nowhere in sight. While some of the adaptations people have made, like wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance, can be maintained all year, some hinge on the weather. Outdoor dining has been widely accepted as the safest way to eat at a restaurant, but what happens when winter comes and temperatures plummet?

The ongoing pandemic has kneecapped the restaurant industry. Many restaurants were forced to shut their doors for weeks on end, and some will never reopen. Locations that managed to weather the early months of the pandemic have been inching their way back toward their bottom line, but winter’s approach has restaurant owners concerned. 

Shifts to outdoor seating have helped some restaurants welcome back guests because it’s considered safer to eat in the open air instead of inside a building, but not all restaurants have this option. Locations without a patio have no choice but to maintain indoor seating, which is severely impacting the number of customers they can serve. 

Even those locations with available outdoor areas are forced to get creative if they want to continue serving customers in the winter months. The city of Chicago is pushing for a solution by offering three $5,000 prizes to anyone who can solve the city’s outdoor seating problem. “We are asking our community members to come together and think creatively about how we can make outdoor dining feasible in the winter,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. 

The President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, Sam Toia, has been urging officials to consider creative solutions for weeks now. Recommendations include “extending street closures and using tents, heaters, blankets, and plastic domes” to increase restaurants’ capacities.

For restaurants without the ability to employ outdoor seating, there are some options to improve the safety of indoor spaces. One restaurant in Minnesota installed pricey HVAC systems with the hope that they’ll make customers feel safer within its walls. 

A Wisconsin bar owner believes that a cultural shift to “embrace winter” must follow. In some areas, he noted, people can enjoy an outdoor meal in “20 degree” weather. To make this possible in many areas, changes would be necessary. Planting trees to block wind, finding ways to capture heat and maximize exposure to sunshine, and adding more color to keep things vibrant are some examples.

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Sources: USA Today, Restaurant Business Online, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe

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