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While outdoor dining is better than indoor, it’s not completely without risk. Getty Images
  • As the number of COVID-19 cases rises, some places are banning outdoor dining.
  • Public health experts say that, while it’s safer than indoor dining, there’s still some degree of risk.
  • Given how rapidly the virus is spreading, it’s important to get it under control.
  • But, experts also acknowledge that there must be a balance between public health and the economic risk associated with closures.

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As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, hard-hit locations like New York City are once again canceling indoor restaurant dining.

And, cities like Los Angeles are beginning to ban outdoor dining as well.

While many restaurant owners are chafing at the tighter restrictions on their businesses, some public health experts say the restrictions are necessary to rein in the spread of the virus.

“In the current situation, we need to pull all stops,” said Karin Michels, ScD, PhD, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

She pointed out that the second wave of COVID-19 is much bigger than the first.

“Outdoor dining still allows for people to cluster and come in much too close contact; 6 feet distance between individuals cannot be maintained,” she said. “Therefore, it is sensible to close outdoor dining areas.”

Throughout the summer, when the number of COVID-19 cases was waning, many restaurants had been able to reopen by creating outdoor seating areas, and requiring mask wearing and physical distancing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), taking no precautions would be the riskiest move for restaurants.

Indoor seating with tables spaced 6 feet apart or outdoor seating with no spacing is a somewhat better arrangement.

Outdoor seating with at least 6 feet between tables, as well as drive-thru, delivery, takeout, and curbside pickup services are even safer.

The safest option is to offer only drive-thu, delivery, takeout, and curbside pickup.

So, while outdoor dining is better than indoor, it’s not completely without risk.

“There is an increased risk that comes with dining in restaurants, whether indoors or outdoors,” said Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“People are spending an extended period of time in close contact with other people, and they have to take their masks off to eat and drink,” he said.

Sharona Hoffman, JD, LLM, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s schools of law and medicine and the co-director of their Law-Medicine Center, pointed out that outdoor dining also brings certain risks for restaurant employees.

Even though employees will be wearing masks, restaurant patrons won’t be doing so at all times, she said.

She added that when employees have to interact with patrons in close proximity, they’re at greater risk of contracting the virus.

“Moreover, cooks presumably work indoors, and waiters have to go indoors frequently to pick up food and drinks,” she said. “They interact with other employees when they do so.”

While Michels said we need to “pull all stops” in order to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, Labus said we need to seek a balance between public health needs and economic risk.

“Any approach that reduces transmission of disease is welcome,” Labus said. “But that approach has to be balanced against the economic damage that comes with placing restrictions on an industry that is already struggling because of the pandemic.”

He added that communities have taken different approaches to restaurant capacity over the course of the pandemic, from prohibiting dining at restaurants and only allowing takeout, to permitting dining at reduced capacities.

“Given the risk involved, it makes more sense to close indoor dining before closing outdoor dining,” Labus said.

Your safest bet is to avoid restaurants, Michels said.

“Prepare your own food,” she said. “It is also a chance to improve your dining habits because preparing your own food allows you to control what goes into your dish and you might choose higher quality ingredients than restaurants might do.”

Hoffman agreed that eating at home is your safest option, but feels that takeout is also safe.

“If you are nevertheless going to dine at a restaurant,” Hoffman said, “opt for outdoor dining, wear your mask as much as possible, and avoid crowded areas.”

She added that “it is best to go out only with people in your household and avoid dining with anyone who may be exposed through work, social interactions, or otherwise.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, some locales are beginning to reinstitute indoor dining bans.

In addition, some public health experts are recommending that outdoor dining be curtailed as well.

This move is controversial.

Some experts point to the fact that outdoor dining presents a risk to customers as well as employees. Eliminating this risk will help curb the spread of COVID-19, they say.

Yet others are calling for a balance between public health and economic risk.

The one thing that most seem to agree on, however, is that eating at home is the safest thing we can do.