In the historic downtown district of Warrenton, Virginia, last weekend, American flags floated on a balmy breeze above outdoor tables spilling out onto the sidewalk and into the street.
Restaurants in this part of the state were allowed to reopen outdoor dining Friday. With a rooftop deck it could fill only halfway, Denim & Pearl Restaurant got the city’s blessing to take the indoors out. Antsy to get out of the house after weeks of self-isolation, diners lined up to grab a bite on the makeshift patio.
“It was a crazy busy weekend,” Denim & Pearl owner Jenn Robinson told USA TODAY. “Just on Saturday, we did in sales what we had done the entire previous week just with curbside and delivery.”
As the U.S. reopens and summer approaches, cities from Tampa, Florida, to Las Vegas to Portland, Maine, are opening sidewalks and closing streets to create large al fresco or plein air dining rooms. They hope this nod to the bustling cafe culture of Paris and Rome will help Americans feel comfortable eating out again and help restaurants begin to recover from staggering losses.
“As we transition to reopening Las Vegas, we want to ensure we are doing everything we can to assist our small businesses,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman told USA TODAY. “Sidewalk dining is a safe and easy way we can help.”
Five miles from the Centers for Disease Control, Brookhaven, Georgia, was one of the nation’s first cities, if not the first, to take part in the national COVID-19 dining trend. It began offering free temporary 90-day outdoor permits in April.
“With restaurants reopening, we wanted to allow them a bigger footprint so they could serve more people but also serve them safer,” Mayor John Ernst Jr. told USA TODAY.
Socially distanced outdoor dining has been a hit with residents and restaurants from a steakhouse, which transformed a patio entrance, to Ernst’s local pizza joint, which set up tables in the parking lot. Soon, Ernst’s phone was ringing off the hook with calls from other cities exploring similar initiatives.
Now proposals are being floated all over the country to allow restaurants to spread out to sidewalks, parklets (parking spaces converted into extra outdoor seating), parking lots or even into streets as long as they adhere to safety and sanitation guidelines. Some cities are already expediting permits and waiving fees, helping restaurants whip through what is often a cumbersome and costly process.
Temporarily shutting down streets for farmers markets and music and arts festivals is common for cities, so why not for a pandemic?
“It’s only new in the sense of doing it to allow restaurants, cafes and other businesses to reopen safely with maximum physical distancing,” Jesse Arreguín, mayor of Berkeley, California, told USA TODAY.
Inspired by Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, which last month handed over public space to restaurants, cafes and bars to set up outdoor tables, Arreguín has proposed that Berkeley follow suit when the city's shelter-in-place order lifts, in part to shore up sales tax revenue that is getting walloped by restaurant losses and closures.
“I think it would really help some of our struggling restaurants, and it’s good for our community,” he says. “People are really eager to get out of the house and to at least try to have some sense of normalcy.”
The advantage of open-air dining for restaurants with prosciutto-thin margins in the time of the coronavirus: By expanding their square footage, they can operate at full rather than at half or a quarter capacity. And dining that sprawls onto sidewalks and streets has the advantage of keeping restaurantgoers and servers from clustering indoors where the coronavirus is transmitted more easily.
Socially distanced dining is recommended by public health experts
Socially distanced dining is encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control in its new guidelines on how Americans should resume daily life. Some governors, such as California’s Gavin Newsom, have urged restaurants to prioritize and expand outdoor seating.
“Dining outdoors, with tables separated and staff wearing masks, will have a lower risk than being confined indoors,” says infectious disease expert Barry Bloom, a professor and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
To help more restaurants expand their footprint outdoors, David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group, an architecture and design firm in New York, is creating an adaptable kit for socially distanced outdoor dining that restaurants will be able to use once they receive permits. The kit, which includes dining areas and sanitizing stations, is designed to fit a restaurant’s budget and needs by offering minimal to more complex dining spaces for various sidewalk and street locations.
Dining expanded to sidewalks and streets gets good reviews
So far, restaurants are giving this new kind of outdoor dining good reviews.
The first restaurant approved for an outdoor dining permit in Savannah, Georgia, was Sorry Charlie's Oyster Bar and Cocktails, which is closing down a side street, where it’s placing six tables from noon until the close of business.
Owner Harley Krinsky says he finished a months-long renovation of his 200-year-old building in March, six days before the pandemic shut down his restaurant. He reopened last week but with a 50% capacity limit.
“The additional outdoor seating does not get us all the way, but it gets us close to our previous capacity before the pandemic,” Krinsky says. “We feel strongly that outside seating is what people are going to feel the most comfortable with and we think it’s a great opportunity to give our customers a safe and inviting experience.”
With millions of restaurant employees laid off and billions in sales lost, additional outdoor dining space won’t cure all that ails restaurants devastated by COVID-19, but some fresh air and sunshine this spring and summer could help boost business at a critical time, says Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the National Restaurant Association.
Nowhere is that more true than in the Mediterranean climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, where new spacing guidelines could crush restaurants with smaller dining rooms that already are limping by on meager profit margins and paying sky-high rents, says Greg St. Claire, owner of the Avenir Restaurant Group, which runs restaurants there. This serial restaurateur says he’s weathered earthquakes and stock market meltdowns, but this crisis is different.
“The psychological damage that’s been done, all the fear, that is going to continue for a long time. People are not going to feel comfortable coming indoors to a restaurant,” St. Claire says.
Restaurants urge cities to cut the red tape
He's frustrated that some outdoor proposals are getting caught up in red tape.
“We are going to lose some of the best restaurants in America because we have city councils who are too small-minded to see that they can close that street, just for the summer even, to help get us through this thing,” he says.
Among the issues bogging down proposals to expand outdoor dining space: access for emergency responders, rerouting public transit routes, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, leaving enough room for delivery and take-out operations and addressing residents’ concern about losing parking spaces in downtown areas.
In Mountain View, California, home to the headquarters of Google, Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga says city staffers are taking those kinds of considerations into account as they draft a proposal to close traffic on the city’s main drag this summer through September.
Businesses were not enthusiastic about the prospect of shutting down Castro Street in years past, she says, but “obviously with COVID, things have changed.”
Should you dine outdoors at restaurants again?
So should you start dining outdoors again? It’s still difficult for public health experts to gauge how risky restaurant dining is.
"Since we haven’t experienced a pandemic like this before, there are no clear rules," Bloom says.
Infectious diseases expert Emily Landon, a University of Chicago associate professor of medicine, says the bottom line is, outdoors is better than indoors.
The big problem with eating out is that you have to remove your mask. So before dining, check out the establishment, she advises.
Are the servers wearing masks? Are they keeping their distance from one another? Are tables blocked off and 6 feet apart? Is there easy access to hand sanitizer or hygiene stations for patrons and workers? Are surfaces being regularly disinfected? Is there a COVID-19 policy posted on the website or on the wall?
If you are over 65 or if you are obese or have heart disease, kidney problems, chronic lung or other serious medical conditions, wait a while longer before venturing out for a restaurant meal, Landon recommends.
Whether you head out for a cocktail or a hamburger also depends on where you live, Bloom says.
"If I were in a city with a high number of cases being reported or even rising daily, I think I would be a bit reluctant to go to a restaurant," he said. "Whereas if I lived in a place where the cases have been declining for a couple of weeks, I would feel more confident, and starting outdoors would be fine."