COVID-19 cases rage worse than ever. Infection rates are exploding. California has imposed new restrictions and a 10 p.m.- 5 a.m. curfew for most people. And you just want to eat out for a short escape. However, doing that safely – and comfortably – may be even harder than it has been in recent months.
California again limited restaurant dining to outdoor service, which allows much greater airflow to disperse the coronavirus. Outdoor dining has been considered a moderate risk, and much safer than eating inside.
But the state issued the restrictions because new COVID-19 cases are increasing at a record pace. So, the question now is: Has outdoor dining gotten riskier?
The simple answer: Probably, yes. The more complicated answer: It’s a matter of degree and what you do.
“We’re seeing the highest number of COVID-19 cases that we’ve ever seen. That means your chance of being around people who are infected is higher now than it’s ever been,” said Natascha Tuznik, a UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases. “You absolutely have to consider the risk.”
Making a choice
For many people, restaurants are vital to a community. They’re more than just places to eat, they’re gathering spots and often keepers of tradition and common connections. The struggles of many restaurant owners are almost as painful for community members as for the restaurateurs and their staffs.
But health officials fear that restaurants have many built-in risks for spreading COVID-19, precisely because they are gathering spots – where people take off their masks to eat and often stay for hours.
“It pains me to give this advice,” Tuznik said. “I know how hard restaurants are struggling, and how important they are to all of us. But I still need to say, you should really think carefully about restaurant dining – even outdoor dining – now that we’re threatened by this extremely dangerous surge of COVID-19 cases.”
Does cold weather make COVID-19 better or worse?
— Natascha Tuznik
“We just don’t know that, yet,” Tuznik said. “I would make no assumption either way. Certainly, don’t get a false sense of security because the temperature has dropped. Cold weather has historically never slowed down the common cold or the flu viruses.”
Researchers do know that people’s reactions to cold weather – which include gathering together indoors – can make the situation worse.
“People think because it’s winter, you’re more susceptible to colds,” Tuznik said. “But really, nothing changes with the cold virus. It’s just that we’re all close together indoors.”
Winterized outdoor dining: The good news
- Outdoor heaters are safe: “I’ve seen no evidence of any problems with heat lamps,” Tuznik said. “They’re actually a great option. Just be careful you don’t crowd in with people from another table."
The only downside is outdoor heaters are in such high demand, it’s hard for some restaurants to get them.
- Single-table plastic igloos appear to be fine: These are the clear plastic bubbles appearing at some restaurants that fit over one whole table to keep diners warm and dry.
“As long as the restaurant follows good protocols to clean them and air them out between guests, the igloos seem to be a good idea, though no studies have been done yet,” Tuznik said. “Be sure there is only one group per igloo bubble.”
- Food poses no risk: “There is still no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted through food,” Tuznik said. “That should also make you feel better about getting takeout, which is a safer option.”
- It could be worse: “At least we’re not a place like Minneapolis or Milwaukee,” Tuznik said. “Many nights, it’s not horrible to sit outside.”
Winterized outdoor dining: The dangers
“Please remember, there’s no way to go out risk free, especially now with the pandemic exploding like never before,” Tuznik said. “Always understand, dining out poses some risk that you will get COVID-19 or that you will make someone else sick.”
- Tarps and tents are almost as risky as being indoors: “Vinyl or plastic siding with roofs or pop-up tents are not a good alternative,” she said. “The reason you want to be outside is for the airflow, and those cut it off. If there is at least one side open, that’s somewhat better, so try to sit there. But be careful in any setting where the air circulation has been reduced.”
- Fire pits: “They can be another big risk,” Tuznik said. “It’s winter, they’re warm and cozy, people gather around them. But that’s the problem. People are likely to get too close to each other, especially if we’ve been eating and drinking. That’s when we tend to lose our inhibitions.”
As for the impact of fire itself on the virus?” We don’t know the answer,” she said. “There is no research yet.”
- Floor fans: Some places try to increase air flow with large floor fans. Bad idea. “If you see those anywhere, leave immediately,” Tuznik said. “They create a concentrated blast of air that can blow the coronavirus across a room or dining patio. They completely defeat your social distancing efforts.”
More tips to stay safe and protect your community
Ask for only one server: “That’s fewer hands and fewer people you will be exposed to,” Tuznik said.
— Natascha Tuznik
Try not to stay too long: “I don’t want to spoil all the fun,” Tuznik said, “but the length of time matters. If you’re in a place with a lot of people – even if they are distanced from you – the longer you’re there, the higher your risk.”
Although being outdoors in a place with good circulation reduces the risk, there are other factors in outdoor restaurants that create a danger of infection.
“People tend to talk loudly in those settings, and that means they can send the virus farther and in greater amounts,” she said. “Any place where people are drinking, they lose their inhibitions and forget to be cautious. That applies to all of us. If we don’t stay too long, not only are we exposed less, we probably drink less.”
Catch a happy hour: Prices are better, the temperature hasn’t dropped completely, and they don’t last all night. “If you stick to the happy hour,” Tuznik said, “you’ll save a couple dollars and you’re less likely to keep drinking and lose your inhibitions.”
Keep your mask on when you can: California’s mask guidance asks people to keep their masks on when they walk to their tables and when they use the restroom. It also asks people to put their masks back on between courses if they’re not eating or drinking.
“Masks protect you and they protect the people around you,” Tuznik said. “As bad as things are right now, there’s nothing more important than wearing masks and social distancing. Whether it’s a requirement or a suggestion, do the right thing for your community.”