Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been eating outdoors at restaurants in an effort to enjoy some semblance of normality while avoiding indoor areas, which generally pose a higher risk for coronavirus spread. But now that winter and colder temperatures are here, businesses have started to enclose those outdoor areas, thus turning them into…indoor areas. Is that actually any safer than just eating at an indoor restaurant?
If you’re going to be eating or meeting up with people you don’t already live with, it’s safer to do so outside. That’s because the coronavirus spreads mainly via respiratory droplets that people who have the infection expel when they talk, laugh, cough, sneeze, or yell. Those droplets contain particles of the virus, so if someone else inhales the droplets or they land in someone’s eyes, nose, or mouth, they can go on to infect that person.
When you’re eating outdoors where there’s natural airflow, the virus is less likely to spread to someone else than if you’re indoors, Humberto Choi, M.D., a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Cleveland Clinic, told SELF previously. If someone expels respiratory droplets outside, they are less likely to build up the way they would in an indoor space. And having adequate ventilation is especially important now that we know COVID-19 can also spread via smaller aerosolized particles, which can travel farther than six feet under certain circumstances. Airborne transmission like this is most likely to occur when spending an extended amount of time (more than 15 minutes) in close contact with someone indoors.
Enclosing an outdoor space—and thereby the natural airflow—takes away all the advantages against COVID-19 that being outside would provide. So it’s not surprising that experts aren’t too keen on these outdoor tent restaurant areas. “These structures are basically just outdoor indoor dining,” Uché Blackstock, M.D., emergency medicine physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity, said on Twitter about the enclosed tents. “When I see them, I feel sad and scared. Folks, try to avoid eating inside of these death traps.”
“I hate to break it to the hardcore tent diners, but houses and buildings are also outdoor-facing. It doesn’t make the insides any less enclosed,” Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., virologist and affiliate of the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said on Twitter. And Dan Diekema, M.D, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa, put it in even simpler terms: “If you completely enclose an outdoor space, it becomes an indoor space.”
It’s technically possible to make these spaces a bit safer by following the public health protocols we’ve become familiar with during the pandemic, including keeping tables a good distance apart, requiring customers to wear masks as much as possible, and providing hand sanitizer for people to use frequently. It’s also still safer for patrons to go out to eat only with the people they live with. But, generally, eating in an enclosed outdoor space—which, again, is essentially just an indoor space—does not provide the same protection against COVID-19 that eating in a fully outside area does.
With such limited relief for small businesses and their employees during the pandemic, it’s understandable that restaurants would want to do what they could to keep serving people even as the temperatures drop and the weather turns to rain and snow. But the safest way for customers to support those businesses is to order takeout, not to eat “outside” in a tent.