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A waitress wearing a mask serves two diners in New York City, where bars and restaurants with outdoor dining spaces have been allowed to reopen. | Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

7 questions about outdoor dining and drinking in the pandemic, answered.

For the past three months, Americans across the country have been sheltering, maybe miserably, in place. Governors and mayors, taking the advice of health officials, shut down almost all activities — restaurants, bars, movie theaters, gyms, hair salons, amusement parks — to curb the spread of coronavirus. From coast to coast, people have been asked to spend their days, nights, and weekends at home.

That’s slowly changing as states and cities start to reopen — some like Arizona and Florida have already opened even in the face of rising case rates.

The specific restrictions depend on city and county levels, but the general takeaway is that not everything comes back at once. Salons and barbershops couldn’t open right away. In some states, gyms have had to implement new changes. Concerts and Broadway shows are still off the table. School openings in fall remain uncertain. For restaurants and bars, the first establishments allowed to open are those with outdoor dining and drinking space.

This might feel like a privilege for many of us who have spent 100-plus days dining in the monotony of our homes. Yet our new freedom comes with its own set of uncertainties.

Stuff that we may not have thought about before — a cough at another table; a waiter pouring us a glass of water or wine; a bartender plopping a garnish into a drink; very loud brunch talking — takes on a new light now that we know about coronavirus and how it spreads.

What exactly does “outdoors” mean? Just how safe is it to eat and drink in the company of other people? How do we eat or drink with a mask on? Should we even be eating and drinking outside at all?

I asked health experts and bar owners the practical (and maybe impractical) questions we have surrounding the new rules. Their answers will hopefully shed some light on how we can enjoy eating and drinking out again while keeping ourselves and people around us as safe as possible.

1) Why is outside dining and drinking considered safer?

In the second stage of New York City’s plan, outdoor dining and drinking is allowed but indoor dining isn’t (yet). The same goes for New Jersey. This points to outdoor dining being safer, and the reason, according to Stephen S. Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, is air circulation.

In an outdoor space, “there would generally be much more air movement, so particles containing the virus would dissipate faster,” he told me.

Anne-Marie Gloster, a lecturer at University of Washington’s School of Public Health, has been studying the pandemic’s impact. She said that the more air you have circulating around you, the less risk the environment presents. And if you have a lot of air circulation, chances are there’s much more space between you and other people.

“If someone sneezes in a tight space, like an elevator, those particles are trapped in that space,” Gloster told me. “These particles can be moved around by human movements in close proximity and therefore make it more likely that you can inhale them or have these particles land on your hands or in your eyes. Being outside often means you can have an easier time creating that 6-foot buffer of space between people.”

2) What counts as “outdoors”?

 Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Outdoor dining in New York City.

Obviously, any space that isn’t indoors is outdoors — like sidewalks and backyards. But what happens to our risk in a tented space? Or what happens to a space that has a high roof but isn’t walled off? Does our risk increase?

“I think large tents with a top and open sides can still be called outside. In hotter climates and on sunnier days, the shade protection is necessary for comfort and sun protection,” Gloster said. “Air can still circulate freely in those environments.”

The less space and air movement a place has, the greater the risk, so if your “outdoor” space feels like close quarters, keep that in mind.

3) Are we putting staff at risk?

Yes. The general rule is every time we expose ourselves to more people, we increase our risk to ourselves and to the people we come into contact with. This is why health directives have specifically said to minimize nonessential trips and contact with other people.

Going to a restaurant or bar increases your risk and the risk of the people who work there.

Staff, who are commuting to work, taking orders, serving multiple parties, clearing dishes and utensils, and spending time in a hot and enclosed kitchen, will be facing more exposure than the average person.

That makes it important for owners to take precautions to keep their staff as safe as its patrons. And, as Morse explained, to follow health protocols like keeping masks on, using hand sanitizer, and “observe all the hygienic precautions.” It’s also worth remembering the effort that staffers are putting in to give you the privilege of eating and drinking outside, and tip generously.

4) What can bars and restaurants to do keep patrons safe?

 Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Masked servers and 6 feet of social distance are things to look for when trying to minimize your exposure risk

Again, every state’s plan differs slightly when it comes to stages of reopening. But generally, health officials have mandated that restaurants and bars maintain social distancing rules by placing tables 6 feet apart and cutting capacity. Some states also require staffers to wear masks.

In Manhattan, Ravi DeRossi is trying to go the extra step. He’s beginning to open his cocktail bars and restaurants — Avant Garden and Amor y Amargo — for outdoor drinking and dining.

“Right now, we just have outside dining and all of our tables are 6 feet apart and we’re not allowing groups larger than four,” he said. “On the tables, we have individual sanitation wipes. We also have hand sanitizer everywhere. We clean the bathroom after every single person. We do temperature checks on the staff when they get in. And everybody wears masks the entire time, as well as gloves, and we’ve also taken out almost all garnishes from our cocktails for now.”

DeRossi says he’s primarily concerned with minimizing risk for his patrons and his staff. A big part of that responsibility is on patrons following the new rules, and DeRossi said his patrons at both locations have been respectful, understanding and following the new health protocols.

“We’ve run really tight ships at all our cocktail bars — they’re all seated-only bars, and we essentially run them like restaurants. We don’t allow crowding,” he said. “I think our clientele is pretty responsible and willing, you know. We’re going to be very strict about our rules, and if they don’t want to comply, then they just have to go somewhere else.”

If you’re trying to assess whether the restaurant you’re considering eating at is taking precautions seriously, distanced tables, masked staff, and enhanced sanitation measures are all hallmarks to look out for.

5) So how are we supposed to eat and drink with masks on?

While many of us know how to eat and drink and how to wear a mask, we haven’t had a lot of practice doing them all at the same time. Is there a strategy? Should we be pulling up our masks after every bite?

Constant remasking is “usually impractical (and not much fun),” Morse said. “However, do observe the other precautions.”

He explained that the annoying reality of mask-wearing is what makes dining and drinking out hard to do. “Some people may feel more comfortable putting their masks back on between courses. Be careful not to get into the habit of relaxing precautions at other times.”

Gloster echoed that sentiment, laying out her preferred strategy.

“Keep your mask on while waiting for your food, take it off and eat, and then put it back on when you are done is the best strategy,” she said. “Make sure that you put your mask away and not just on the table unless you have sanitized it or you feel it’s a clean surface.”

I also asked about face shields — the kind your dentist might wear and the type of PPE that some health care workers wear on top of masks. They’re easier to disinfect and protect the wearer’s eyes as well. They’re also valuable in that they make it easier for people who depend on lip-reading. But they’re not a game changer for diners, sadly.

“You can easily drink from a straw with a face shield, but hardly anything else,” Gloster said. “I like the face shield because they allow us to read facial expressions, but they are not easy to eat with.”

6) Who should we be eating with?

Diners outdoors in New York. Noam Galai/Getty Images
Dining with people you live with is the safest option.

The ongoing advice from health officials has been that the people we live with — families, roommates, significant others — are the only people we should be interacting with. That’s because we share the same environments and risk levels with said people and, ideally, have open communication about things like commutes, essential trips, etc. that we are taking.

But does this mean the people we live with are the people we will be drinking outside and eating with? Is scenery all that’s changing?

This isn’t completely realistic (see: Americans from coast to coast ignoring social distancing rules). Humans are human, and epidemiologists know that humans are going to do human things like see each other. It then becomes a personal assessment of risk as states relax some social distancing rules.

“Many more people are creating bubbles of socially acceptable friends,” Gloster said. “My family has done the same. It requires having frank discussions about everyone’s risk level and comfort zone with risk, then agreeing to adhere to the same kind of precautions so that the groups can socialize with less risk.”

Essentially, an option for some people is to socialize with a closed group of friends who have a similar mindset.

As epidemiologists told my colleague Sigal Samuel in April, this works better in theory than execution as people are fallible and sometimes not honest.

The key part of this advice then is clear communication and comfort. For this idea — socializing with a specific group of people — to work, people have to act responsibly and with honesty about the trips they’re taking, how many people they’re socializing with, etc.

It’s important to remember too, as Morse pointed out, that social distancing, hygiene precautions, and mask-wearing should be maintained regardless of whom you’re eating or drinking with. And if there’s any doubt, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with staying home.

7) What’s working in South Korea? And can it work here?

As the coronavirus pandemic weaves its way around the world, we’ve been able to see which countries have done a better job and which ones haven’t been handling it well at all. The United States is part of the latter group, while South Korea’s model is considered one of the best.

One of the things South Korea has been able to do well is not only get its citizens to buy into the social distancing measures, but also supplement that with robust and extensive contact tracing — essentially testing as many as people as possible who were in contact with someone who was sick.

One of the ways South Korea’s government is doing this in bars and nightclubs is making its citizens scan a specific QR code before entering one of these establishments. That code contains personal contact information and allows the government to contact and trace people in case they’re exposed to the virus.

While this helps keep the virus down and allows for rapid, thorough response, it’s also a major privacy issue. And it’s hard to see something similar happening in the US, where the simple act of wearing a mask has become politicized, even as the country reported that its coronavirus cases hit a single-day record of 38,115 new reported infections on June 24.

The bottom line: Any time we take a trip out of our homes and come into contact with other people, it raises the risk of exposure to the virus. This applies to dining out as well, and the people working at bars and restaurants — tip generously. The good news is that drinking and eating outside minimizes our risk, so if we do decide to partake in this reacquired privilege, we should do our best to maintain all the good habits we learned.

Author: Alex Abad-Santos

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