Indoors, on the Sidewalk?

In-person dining is becoming more perilous this winter as restaurants and customers are sidelining caution for comfort and convenience.

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A bike ride through Greenwich Village is enough to illustrate some of the reasons for the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. Sidewalk spaces and blockaded roads are brimming with diners. And while my family ordered takeout from a small taco shop that did not offer indoor dining, other restaurants were packed with people blatantly neglecting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Sidewalks were crowded with (maskless) people talking and drinking over standing tables, putting not only themselves but also every passerby in a dangerous predicament.

More often than not, their intentions are pure. These aren’t malicious anti-maskers nor are they arriving in groups of over 10 people, but rather average New Yorkers hoping to catch a meal with a few friends on a Sunday evening. But when multiple groups of 10 congregate in the same cramped dining space, it jeopardizes safety.

Because one cannot eat while wearing a mask, dining out is currently one of the riskiest activities there is. In fact, a CDC report found that people who test positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant than those who test negative. In-person dining is becoming more perilous this winter as restaurants and customers are sidelining caution for comfort and convenience.

As winter approaches, restaurants are facing challenges posed by cold weather. Many restaurants have begun to put up walls and roofs in an attempt to block out the wind. Essentially, outdoor dining spaces have become indoor spaces on the sidewalk. When you add packed tables barely six feet apart, serious concerns arise.

The NYC guidelines for outdoor dining have been tweaked for the winter. Restaurants are permitted to set up tents, but if the tents have at least three enclosed sides, the restaurants must maintain a maximum of 25 percent capacity in them. If the tents are 50 percent open (completely open on the side facing the restaurant and with ventilation on the roof), outdoor dining rules mandating that tables be six feet apart still apply. In practice, however, these capacity percentages are muddled and thrown to the side as restaurants attempt to squeeze in more tables and customers.

One potential solution restaurants are experimenting with is private bubbles for each party. These round plastic tents are being placed around dining tables to insulate the space while minimizing the risk of transmission between separate groups. The flaw in this model is that these are essentially poorly ventilated indoor spaces being reused by multiple maskless customers. So if a person with the virus eats in the bubble that morning, everyone who sits there throughout the day is prone to infection.

Still, it is understandable that they are eager to run at a regular pace again: small businesses and restaurants took massive financial blows from the pandemic. But rather than squeezing more tables into an already cramped and not socially distant “outdoor” setting, it is crucial for restaurants to promote takeout options and take only advance reservations for limited seating.

Much of the responsibility should be placed upon customers as well. We can continue to support local restaurants by purchasing takeout and tipping generously. On occasions when we wish to eat out, it’s a good practice to reserve tables ahead of time. In addition, we should avoid considering seating availability as a factor in deciding where to eat: restaurants functioning safely will have fewer seating options, whereas those that are not will squeeze in tables hazardously. In other words, the restaurants with the most available seats will not always be the safest. Moreover, pinpointing places with safe procedures is crucial. When in doubt, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask restaurants about their safety protocols. If seating at safe restaurants is unavailable, ordering takeout to eat in a park or at home is a great alternative.

As a vaccine seems to draw near, we are all itching to go back to normal. The end feels so close, and we want to get up and running again. Unfortunately, this mentality has brought a second wave of the virus on New York and has begun to slowly chip away at the precautions we take in our everyday lives. While takeout dining may not capture the charm and ambiance of its in-person counterpart, remember that we’re not ready to go back to normal just yet. My afternoon bike ride through Lower Manhattan reveals a whole new architectural view with tents, gazebos, and bubbles popping up on every street. At another time, they could have been a fun addition to this ever-changing city. But today, I hope they don’t lull us into a false sense of security. Victory over COVID-19 could be close. We can compromise our love for in-person dining just a little while longer.