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Restaurants' anger over outdoor dining bans reaches a boiling point

Scientific evidence says outdoor dining does not contribute to COVID spread so long as safety protocols are followed.
Photo courtesy of City Winery

Angela Marsden’s frustration and anger over California's outdoor dining ban went viral. 

Her emotions are palpable in a two-minute video she posted earlier this month. In the video, which has now been viewed millions of times on social media, Marsden shows the empty patio of her shutdown Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill. It's just a few steps across a parking lot from a tented dining area erected for a movie production.

“I’m losing everything,” Marsden said in the video, her voice breaking. “Everything I own is being taken away from me and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio … They have not given us money and they have shut us down. We cannot survive. My staff cannot survive. Tell me that this is dangerous, but right next to me, as a slap in my face, that’s safe.”

Marsden, who has owned the restaurant for 10 of its more than 40 years, told Restaurant Business she had finally turned a pandemic profit in October only to have outdoor dining suspended in much of the state earlier this month.

Pineapple Hill is currently closed, forgoing offering delivery and takeout to preserve capital, she said.

Seeing holiday shoppers packing stores, as well as that film catering operation, is maddening, she said.

“It’s criminal. It’s outrageous,” she said of the outdoor dining ban. “We have an economic humanitarian crisis that’s about to hit us.”

Science supports safe outdoor dining

While indoor dining has been subject to rolling shutdowns around the country during the pandemic, outdoor dining bans are less common.

In November, Oregon and New Mexico suspended outdoor dining for several weeks amid rising infection rates. Other states, such as Minnesota, are allowing outdoor dining at reduced capacities. In Washington, D.C., restaurant operators are barred from using their outdoor dining areas during inclement weather or when the temperature falls below freezing, according to the capital's alcoholic beverage regulation agency. Outdoor dining was briefly suspended in New York City this week but that was due to a major snowstorm, not the virus.

California’s outdoor dining shutdown impacts much of the state and is slated to be reassessed at the end of the month.

In announcing the outdoor dining ban, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the order applied to regions in the state in which intensive care unit capacities were shrinking under the stress of coronavirus hospitalizations. 

"As a restaurateur myself ... I deeply empathize and I have deep appreciation for the stress and the struggles our restaurants have had," Newsom, who is part owner of a company that owns wineries, bars and restaurants, said, according to media reports. 

But how great a risk of virus spread is there when dining al fresco on a restaurant patio or other outdoor dining venue?

Experts say coronavirus risks are dependent on a number of factors in outdoor settings.

“While outdoor dining is generally safer than indoor dining, the risk of transmission from one outdoor table to another will depend on the specifics of the situation,” said Brent Williams, associate professor of atmospheric chemistry and technology at Washington University in St. Louis. 

One of my colleagues likes to use the analogy of smoking. How close do you need to be to a smoker to inhale their smoke particles? Indoor smoking was banned because there was no way to prevent exposure to other occupants. However, smoking outdoors doesn’t necessarily mean others won’t still be exposed. It’s all about the movement of air, which can be hard to control outdoors.”

Indeed, “the devil is in the details,” agreed Jose-Luis Jimenez, professor of chemistry at University of Colorado-Boulder. When sitting outside, there should be a little over six feet between tables of people who are not living together and all guests should be wearing masks when not eating. If these criteria are met, the risk of virus spread is low, Jimenez said.

Restaurants across the country have built elaborate outdoor dining structures, including everything from enclosed tents to wooden cabins to yurts. Jimenez said some of those scenarios can increase COVID risks and that any outdoor structure should have at most two walls, with at least half of the lateral area open.

“But once we start erecting tents and igloos, it can become extremely dangerous,” he said. “Ironically, we turn outdoors into a new form of indoors, one that is often less ventilated and smaller than indoor restaurants, and thus can be much more dangerous.”

Williams agreed that sufficient ventilation or air filtration is key to decreasing exposure among occupants of the same outdoor enclosure—including the server.

“In the indoor environment, we often think about delivering clean air through modifications of a building’s air exchange rate, which could mean opening windows or operating a mechanical HVAC system that brings in fresh air or filters recirculating air,” he said. “The more air exchanges each hour, the better the ventilation.”

There is no established single threshold to target for most spaces, he added, but there are inexpensive ways to monitor ventilation rates. For example, continuous monitoring of carbon dioxide concentrations (which we emit in high amounts from our exhaled breath) can be compared to background concentrations and evaluated to determine whether the air is being efficiently ventilated.

“I think that every single place where we share the air, especially high-risk places like restaurants and bars, needs to have a ‘wall-clock’-type CO2 meter,” Jimenez said. “Importantly, CO2 needs to be measured in full occupancy, otherwise it makes no sense.”

But when it comes to adding another safety feature to outdoor dining, Williams has a simple recommendation: Make sure people are not seated downwind of each other.

“To be honest, I also have gotten everything from death threats to the angry customer. We've been lumped into this COVID-denier crowd and that has never been the case.” -Andrew Gruel, founder of Slapfish.

Weighing risks vs. rewards

Andrew Gruel, founder of the Slapfish fast-casual chain, decided to keep the outdoor tables open at his six company-owned restaurants, in defiance of the state’s suspension.

“We’ve not seen the data or the science proving that outdoor dining is dangerous,” Gruel said.

Slapfish operates at about 70% outdoor dining, 20% takeout and 10% third-party delivery, he said, adding that eliminating patio seating “would crush our sales and there would be a huge transfer into third-party delivery apps.”

Gruel said his patio seating is spread out to allow social distancing and that, as a fast casual, servers are not coming up to the tables. Each table is sanitized between parties, though, he said.

Gruel, who has spoken out about his defiance of the outdoor dining suspension on a number of national TV programs, said his sales are up 200% to 300% in Southern California since his appearances. Absent a massive federal relief package or states allowing the resumption of all on-premise restaurant business, he said, operators really aren’t left with any good options.

He hasn’t been subject to any fines or reprimands from local officials yet. But he has heard from some upset diners.

“To be honest,” he said. “I also have gotten everything from death threats to the angry customer … We’ve been lumped into this COVID-denier crowd and that has never been the case.”

Marsden’s viral video has helped her raise more than $210,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to support her restaurant.

She said she is planning to reopen her patio soon, but only for diners to have a place to eat—not for full-service operations.

“I’m humbled and grateful for all the support,” she said. “I received a Christmas miracle this year, but only because I was brave enough to say, ‘I’m at my breaking point and need help.’”

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