How will Utah restaurants survive when cold weather brings an end to patio dining?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tawny Evelyn works at The Brickyard Bar in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

The outdoor patio at The Brickyard Bar has been a welcome sanctuary this summer, a well-ventilated place where diners could enjoy a fried chicken sandwich and a beer and feel distanced from the coronavirus.

But cool temperatures are looming, putting an end to Utah’s al fresco dining season and causing a new wave of pandemic worry — not just at the Millcreek bar, but at restaurants and bars across the state.

“It does stress me out,” said server Tawny Evelyn, who is unsure how many people will be willing to dine indoors. “It’s possible tips will go down because of the lost capacity.”

The Brickyard Bar, at 3000 S. Highland Drive, recently underwent a $250,000 renovation, but Adrienne Isbel wonders if that enough to make customers feel comfortable sitting inside. She co-owns the space (in the old Lumpy’s sports bar location) with her husband Jeff. “Everyone is panicked about what happens this fall,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said indoor spaces with less ventilation increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus. And It doesn’t help that over the past few weeks, Utah’s daily COVID-19 cases have reached an all-time high.

The Utah Restaurant Association has been working with Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, members of the Legislature and health officials on possible solutions — including adjusting occupancy standards, said president Melva Sine.

“We don’t know how the weather is going to impact restaurants,” she said, “but we know that in a matter of two to three weeks, it’s going to be too cold to dine outdoors.”

Under state health guidelines, tables must be placed at least 6 feet apart whether they’re inside or out, which has reduced dining capacity anywhere from 40% to 70%, depending on the size of the eatery.

Expanding patios into parking lots, walkways and side yards has helped ease the lost capacity for many business owners this summer. It also created a new level of anxiety for servers like Evelyn, since just about everyone wanted to sit outside.

“Working the patio, there are a lot of steps and interruptions,” she said, noting that it was double the distance to take orders, deliver meals, and pick up payments and change. “Sometimes I felt like my customer service wasn’t always as good as it should be — but we’re trying.”

When cold weather arrives and the patio closes, no one is sure what the fallout will be, said Erik Daniels, the chef at Brickyard Bar. The situation is a Catch-22 for businesses.

“We’d do better if we could seat more people inside, but would we be helping spread the virus?” he asked. “It’s hard to know the right thing. And we don’t know if there will be a bigger resurgence [of the virus] once it gets cold.”

If that happens, another shutdown is a real possibility and something that would devastate the state’s food and beverage industry, he said. “The uncertainty of our future — it’s frightening at times. Another shutdown could really close a lot of local restaurants.”

Unlike last March though, Brickyard and other eateries have become better at offering meals to go, which could sustain them. If the state would allow them to sell, beer, wine or cocktails to go, that might even help more. But so far, the Utah Legislature has not been interested making such a change.

The loss of outdoor dining is a concern across the country.

A researcher at Goldman Sachs used a statistical model to determine what kind of impact restaurants can expect when average daily temperatures drop to just 40 degrees this fall.

“We estimate that winter weather will reduce restaurant spending by 3–4%,” Laura Nicolae wrote in the company’s Oct. 6 U.S. Daily forecasting report.

When average daily temperatures are “well below 40 degrees,” the report added, the negative effect “may become even more extreme.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For the analysis, Nicolae compared daily temperatures across 31 U.S. cities with online restaurant reservations from OpenTable. She also looked at weekly national restaurant spending data.

While several other businesses have moved activities outdoors during the pandemic — like exercise classes and movie screenings — Nicolae wrote, “dining is likely the most economically important” since it accounts for about 5% of total consumption and 3% of the country’s gross domestic product.

On the upside, business owners could once again show their resilience — like they did in March — by finding unique ways to adapt to winter weather and tempering its negative effects on spending.

Washington, D.C., for example, recently offered $6,000 grants to help restaurants “winterize” their outdoor dining.

And the city of Chicago partnered with IDEO, a global design and consulting firm, and the Illinois Restaurant Association on a Winter Dining Challenge, asking residents for ideas on how to encourage safe outdoor dining and entertainment during the cold weather.

The city received 643 submissions. Top suggestions ranged from heated tables and geodesic domes to carhop service and even turning used school buses and shipping containers into micro-restaurants.

Salt Lake City’s Cafe Trio has operated solely on patio dining and takeout since the March shutdown, said general manager Ashley Francom. “No one has even asked to sit inside the dining room.”

The system has operated so well that the thought of losing the 13 outdoor tables — about half of what is usually available — is stressful for the entire staff, she said. “We are all a little nervous, hoping it stays warm as long as possible.”

With a dining room that only seats about 35 people, Francom expects the restaurant will have more takeout orders.

Server Riley Wilson is worried about the uncertain future. “We won’t need as many people working once we are inside,” she said. “That’s scary to think about.”

So is the possibility of contracting the coronavirus.

“Working the patio, you’re in the open air and sun, and it’s comforting,” said the 24-year-old. “Once inside, I worry about getting sick — not necessarily for myself, but taking it home to my mom and dad who are a little more compromised.”

Reporter Alixel Cabrera contributed to this story.