We are deep into winter. Yet it’s not unusual for a Utah diner to ask that ever-popular summer question: “Is there a table on the patio?”
Even more curious, the answer — due to COVID-19 — is often: “Why, yes!”
Dozens of restaurants and bars have created cold-weather accommodations for their patio-loving guests during the coronavirus pandemic. The options range from snowglobe-type domes and igloos to alpine yurts and nylon or canvas tents.
Ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last March that eating outside is safer than being in a crowded building, consumers have preferred outdoor dining.
And with indoor seating reduced sometimes by as much as 50% to meet a mandated 6-foot distance between tables, the additional outdoor options help businesses make ends meet.
Many cities, hoping to assist struggling businesses, also have helped fuel the outdoor option by waiving the usual fees and permits normally required to construct such outdoor structures.
But how safe are they?
Although, it is a cozy way to enjoy a view of the outdoors, eating inside one of the bubblelike structures is “the same as sitting inside a restaurant,” said Nathan Brooks, director of environmental health for the Summit County Health Department.
That’s why health departments require restaurants and bars to follow the same rules for social distancing, sanitation and ventilation inside them, Brooks said. “We want them as safe and meeting the same standards that indoor dining is experiencing.”
While the walls may add a layer of protection from surrounding diners, any structure with a roof, at least three “closed” sides or walls, and one “open” side would have limited airflow, he said, and would require a ventilation system before patrons would be allowed to dine inside.
“When there is no air movement,” Brooks said, “as is the case in most indoor environments, virus particles are trapped inside the space. The virus then recirculates and the concentration of the virus increases.”
A safer outdoor option, according to Brooks, is a tent or tunnel-like structure with a roof, two walls, and two open sides.
“This space has much higher levels of natural ventilation than an indoor space,” according Summit County’s permit application, “allowing the virus to disperse and move out of the space more rapidly.”
Wasatch Brew Pub has two geodesic domes each at its Sugar House and Park City locations and the required reservations for these outdoor igloos fill up quickly, said marketing director Jennifer Roghaar. “People are looking at a month out for a reservation.”
In addition to the ventilation requirements, Roghaar noted, air purifiers — and heaters to keep things comfy — are inside each igloo and operate through the day.
The restaurant also is required by the health department to clean and sanitize chairs, tables and other furniture between every seating. There also must be a wait time — at Wasatch it’s 30 minutes — between when one party leaves and the next group is seated.
While the enclosures do keep patrons separated from others — it is recommended that only members of the same household sit inside.
“We ask our guests to be smart about who they are coming in with,” she said. “It’s difficult for a restaurant to monitor that, but we like to keep it to a [household] or your close bubble.”
Most of the domes, igloos and yurts that have been popped up are located in Summit and Wasatch counties, with at least seven restaurants offering them to patrons —including Boneyard Saloon, Butcher’s Chop House, Café Galleria and Stein Eriksen Lodge.
In Salt Lake County, La Caille in Sandy also has added five different-sized dining globes that seat two, four or six guests. Customers can reserve them in two-hour increments — for $150 to $250 — and that’s not including food.
Brooks, with the Summit County Health Department, said each person must consider the risk factors associated with dining inside a restaurant or one of these enclosed outdoor structures. But restaurants generally are doing all they can, he said, to keep patrons safe with ventilation and sanitation.
After all, their future depends on it.
“These structures are examples of out-of-the-box thinking that displays they want to stay safe to stay open,” he said, “and they are doing all that it takes to meet the regulations put forth by the government agencies.”