Restaurants are adapting as the temperatures drop in some parts of the country. What’s the risk?

Just as you were getting into the perks of outdoor dining, winter is coming. That means many restaurants are devising clever ways of extending outdoor service, including erecting tents, igloos, and greenhouses. (Depending on what part of the country you live in, this may be the only way to eat out in a restaurant, if indoor service has again been restricted.) When it comes to your safety, are these tents really better than inside seating? What are the experts saying?

Outdoor tents versus indoor dining

Honestly, that depends. Eating out during a pandemic exists on a continuum, says Henry F. Raymond, DrPH, MPH, Associate Director for Public Health, The Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness at Rutgers – School of Public Health. Meaning: A small, intimate bistro that would cram people in is the riskiest. On the other side of the spectrum: Picnicking by yourself in a big open field.

In general, al fresco dining is better than inside because “tiny virus droplets that are expelled as you breathe or from a small sneeze can linger in the air for a while,” says Raymond. Outside air and wind will naturally scatter these particles about, so they’re in a less concentrated form. This is why it makes a difference as to the size of the space, number of people in that space, and how much ventilation there is in a restaurant, he adds.

During the summer (or where the weather allows for fresh air to blow through) outside tent dining may well have been preferable to indoor dining. But in winter conditions, how closed off the tent is—does it have tight-fitting side panels, for example—and what kind of ventilation being employed may head into risky territory. "Tents with wall panels are getting too close to the same as being indoors,” Raymond says. As cases spike everywhere, he adds, "I advise reconsidering dining indoors at this point," and "I would not eat in a tent."

outdoor tent dining

Is dining out in any form this winter worth it?

Fundamentally, it’s going to be impossible to know if things like airflow and ventilation in a tent are adequate. While restaurants are doing their best to balance evolving city or state guidelines with operating a business, keep your health—much less the health of anyone you see regularly who is elderly or immunocompromised—at the forefront of your decision.

Bottom line: “I know people want things to feel like normal, but people should consider whether going out to eat is really worth it right now,” Raymond says. Perhaps ordering “in” is poised—again—to be the new dining “out.”