Food and Nutrition

Outdoor Dining Has Been the Saving Grace for Many Restaurants During COVID-19—What Will Happen This Winter?

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/Vera_Petrunina

Back in May, when restaurants across the country were preparing to reopen after being forced closed due to COVID-19, the overall sentiment felt hopeful. Restaurant owners were ready—and very willing—to do everything they could to make diners feel safe.

Many invested in plexiglass dividers between the tables, going above and beyond the requirement of just keeping them six feet apart. Some started selling groceries and essentials to stay open, or got on Seamless or Grubhub for the first time. And those that could moved their dining experiences outdoors—even if it was just a few chairs and tables on the sidewalk.

But as the temperature starts to drop, restaurants are forced to think once again about how they’re going to pivot to stay in business. And this time around, it feels more desperate than hopeful. According to a report released by Yelp in July, nearly 16,000 restaurants have permanently closed during the pandemic since March 2020—and there’s likely been thousands more in the two months since.

With the number of warm days left in the year quickly dwindling—particularly in the Northeast—restaurant owners are thinking critically about what they can do to stay open, and not join the list of restaurants that are sadly now closed for good.

How restaurants are preparing for winter during COVID-19

In Connecticut, indoor dining was given the green light to reopen in June, and Foundry Kitchen & Tavern (located in Sandy Hook) co-owner Kate Neugold says customers quickly filled the seats. “It’s been busy. People seem to be comfortable eating inside with us,” she says. “We have a very large building so we have our table spaced out pretty well.” The restaurant also has a spacious outdoor patio area, which Neugold says has been especially beneficial since the number of tables inside has had to decrease to comply with social distancing requirements.

“Indoor and outdoor seating have both equally been popular,” Nuegold says. “On beautiful days, people want to sit outside. But on busy nights, our whole restaurant is full and on a wait, for inside and out.” She adds that the second weekend in September was one of their busiest days ever, despite having to operate at half-capacity.

Similarly, when OG Social Club (located in Greenwich, Connecticut) reopened in May, owner Jed Simon says they expanded their patio area, moving their entire restaurant outside. Even now that indoor dining is allowed in Connecticut, he says 90 percent of their business comes from outdoor dining. “People feel noticeably safer [eating outside],” he says.

With winter coming, Neugold says the restaurant plans on utilizing the outdoor patio space for as long as possible, and is making changes so it will remain comfortable for diners. “We invested in insulating our covered patio section and we will be getting heating lamps,” she says.

Travis Young, the owner and chef at Elysian Cafe in Hoboken, New Jersey, says his restaurant plans on utilizing outdoor dining as long as possible, too. In New Jersey, indoor dining is currently allowed at 25 percent capacity, which has made the outdoor space vital for many restaurants like his. Like Neugold, Young says that he is thinking of investing in propane heat lamps and electric heaters to make outdoor dining possible through winter. “There are a lot of factors including town approval that will go into that,” he says.

But not all restaurants have the budget to afford to re-outfit their outdoors with heaters or insulation. Restaurants are really struggling right now (especially given that most received no federal stimulus aid), and Simon says it’s difficult for him to justify any additional spending outside of day-to-day operations. Instead, he plans to do what he can with the restaurant as is, keeping in compliance with state and town laws. But he adds that he is extremely worried how winter will affect business and his ability to keep the doors open and folks employed.

Outdoor dining will be coming to an end for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegetarian restaurant abcV in New York City as well. Vongerichten’s executive assistant, Lina Varriale, says outdoor dining is set to end on October 31, but adds that heat lamps will be used through September and October to ensure outdoor diners are more comfortable until then. After that, Varriale says the focus will shift to making indoor seating as safe and welcoming as possible. He adds that the restaurant staff is currently starting to discuss what changes need to be made to do so.

How to support your favorite restaurants while being as safe as possible

Of course the decision to put up with chilly temps outdoors, move indoors, or not eat at restaurants at all is largely up to diners, too. There are still looming questions about how safe eating indoors actually is, even with tables spaced six feet apart. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people who tested positive for COVID-19 were two times as likely to have eaten out than people who tested negative.

“It’s possible that this [new data] indicates that the practice of eating out at restaurants comes with some additional risk—and we know it does come with some risk,” says Rishi Desai, MD, a former CDC epidemic intelligence officer. “It also might speak to the fact that parts of the U.S. where eating out is done and is common are also areas where there are other practices that are spreading COVID-19.” He adds that these areas may be places where people generally don’t wear masks or take other precautions as well. In other words, it hasn’t yet been pinpointed exactly why more people who have eaten out have tested positive for COVID-19.

If you do want to eat out, Dr. Desai says the safest way to do it is either to eat outside sitting at a table that isn’t crowded, or sitting inside away from other diners and not staying there for a prolonged amount of time. But he says getting takeout is an even safer way to eat out. “Takeout is much less risky because you are likely taking the food back to your home to eat rather than eating in a space with other people,” he says. “There are still some minimal risks at the time that you pick up the food, but that’s far less risky then eating in a restaurant.”

Just like in the spring, what’s clear is that we’re heading into winter with a lot of uncertainty: Uncertainty about if COVID-19 cases will rise or decline, uncertainty about what’s truly safe, and uncertainty if our favorite restaurants will be there to ring in the new year. Still, many restaurant owners say they aren’t giving up. “We have seen so much support during COVID-19,” Neugold says. “I hope the worst is behind us but if it isn’t, I have hope because of our community.”

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