Outdoor Indoor Dining?

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Issue 10, Volume 111

By Elizabeth Black 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned indoor dining in restaurants in an effort to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19 on March 16, 2020. The new law was not much of a disruption to millions of New Yorkers who were already staying home in fear of the virus. Ten months later, however, the public’s interest changed in favor of comfort and enjoyment over COVID-safety, and restaurant owners became dangerously more and more creative with outdoor dining.

During the spring and summer, outdoor dining was exactly what its name suggested: tables and chairs on a terrace, patio, or street where patrons dined to avoid gathering in large crowds indoors. Seating abided by social distancing guidelines, so eating at a restaurant was no more dangerous than simply going outside. However, as autumn approached and a typically frigid winter promptly followed, outdoor dining underwent certain changes.

To fight slipping temperatures, restaurants began to set up pop-up tents with outdoor heaters, causing tables to move closer and closer together to fit into the tent walls. Gradually, these tents have evolved into sturdy structures of three or four walls of plywood or even sturdier materials made for almost miniature buildings placed on sidewalks. Photos of New York City’s confusing outdoor dining architecture began to trend on social media, taken by users who were unsure how it was any safer than indoor dining.

Cuomo’s call to close indoor dining aimed mainly to increase airflow between guests and to work together with New York City’s outdoor dining regulations. Most U.S. cities lack clear-cut restrictions on what is considered outdoor or indoor dining, but New York State’s official jurisdiction states that anything walled in on three or more sides is legally considered an indoor restaurant and therefore must operate at 25 percent capacity. The guidelines also call for proper ventilation in any dining area.

Many outdoor dining structures violate these regulations and therefore technically classify as indoor spaces, defeating any purpose of preventing COVID-19. Fully enclosed spaces operating at much more than 25 percent capacity that lack proper ventilation can be seen all over the city. While some restaurant owners follow the rules by implementing one-table “igloos,” freestanding curtains, or other methods to keep their outdoor dining properly ventilated, this structure comes at the expense of the warmth offered by indoor dining, which is the sole factor keeping many restaurants financially afloat during winter, especially after suffering immeasurably because of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, full safety and comfort cannot coexist in the current situation. Cuomo’s plan is forcing restaurants to choose one or the other, but what if a balance can be found? By changing our course of action, we may be able to safely return to eating inside a restaurant much sooner than anticipated.

Los Angeles, for instance, recently put a ban on both indoor and outdoor dining until further notice. Though the results have yet to be observed, the plan is reasonable: since masks are off in dining spaces, COVID-19 is easily spread among patrons. By emptying restaurants, rates of infection can decrease. However, once the ban is lifted, its positive effects could be undone in a matter of days, as people will rush back into restaurants and begin spreading the virus again. While no outcome is guaranteed, New York cannot afford to experiment with a plan like this.

Another approach is to simply reinforce the aforementioned outdoor dining guidelines more strongly. This method is a logical course of action for safety but would be the final blow to the income of restaurants that are already suffering more than ever. Few people want to eat in freezing weather, and most people would rather order takeout instead, severely affecting wages and tips given to the waiting staff.

A third possible solution, though riskier, has the potential to be the best-case scenario. If approached with care and attention, reopening indoor dining at a low capacity may be effective. Banning dining altogether has too many drawbacks and may end up doing more harm than good. When asked to create outdoor dining spaces, restaurants unknowingly opt for unsafe options in order to maintain business. Though reopening indoor dining may sound shocking, it may be the only way to approach this.

Most indoor dining spaces in restaurants are much larger than the outdoor tents, so fewer people will crowd in a small area, and social distancing can be enforced. The buildings can also have proper ventilation through air conditioning, fans, air filters and purifiers, vents, and more. To maintain proper airflow, capacity should not exceed 25 percent. The same comfort can be achieved as that of current outdoor dining without jeopardizing restaurants’ earnings. When spring arrives, indoor seating can be closed, as outdoor dining will be able to operate safely, as it did during the warmer months of 2020.

If indoor dining is brought back, the city and state should monitor it with extremely careful restrictions, and the health department should constantly assess its effectiveness. However, should this new plan be installed and indoor dining reopened, closer attention from state and city officials would help ensure its safety. If carried out cautiously, a safe reopening of indoor restaurants may be the only way to satisfy patrons and restaurant owners while controlling the coronavirus spread as much as possible.