Health

When Does 'Outside' Become Inside? We Asked the Experts

As rules around dining shift rapidly, it's unclear if restaurants can reach a comfortable and COVID-safe definition of "outdoors."
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
November 25, 2020, 1:00pm
People wearing protective masks walk by a weatherized outdoor dining structure outside a restaurant on the Upper East Side
Photo by Cindy Ord via Getty Images

Months ago, the movers and shakers at the CDC told us it was safe—to an extent, at least—to gather outdoors in a distant, mask-wearing fashion. Drive-in movies, picnics, park karaoke, long walks, bike rides, porch hangouts, and nature-centric vacations ensued… and restaurants across the country took note and opened up their outdoor capacity, too. 

But as winter creeps up everywhere in the U.S. that experiences seasons (damn you, SoCal!), outdoor dining has started to look a little bit… different. A little more… enclosed. Gone are the days when all a restaurant needed to set diners up for the al fresco experience was a few beer-branded umbrellas and a stand-up team of servers. Now, outdoor diners behold the great, COVID-19 compliant outdoors: Canopy tents and vinyl “cabins” bloom, makeshift wood-and-plexiglass huts dot the horizon, and quasi-enclosed, be-roofed patios, hurriedly outfitted with space heaters and crinkly astronaut blankets, emit a soft glow from their hanging LED lights. Isn’t nature beautiful? 

As DIY dining set-ups become de rigueur, and more and more people like Atlantic staff writer James Hamblin are beginning to wonder: Is it still COVID-safe outdoor dining if it happens inside a structure? Is it even outdoors anymore? We asked experts from a few relevant disciplines whether tents, cabins, three-walled lean-tos, or full-on doorless buildings count as outdoors. It turns out, the short answers here are pretty uniform. Are most of these structures outdoors from an architectural perspective? No. From a regulatory point-of-view? Nah. From a COVID-safety standpoint? Definitely not!

“The best that one can say about these structures is that they might (underscore ‘might’) be better than the main restaurant they serve,” Richard Corsi, dean of Portland State University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and an indoor air quality expert, told VICE. “That’s only the case if they are able to increase physical distancing between patrons, have a much greater air exchange rate, make it easier for immediate family to dine in isolation from others, and are designed to protect the server/wait staff.” 

It might feel easy enough to say: basically, if it looks like inside, and feels like inside, you are, in fact, indoors. But at what balance point does outdoors become indoors? How many walls are too many walls? What if they add windows? What if there’s no roof? When does the gazebo become a lean-to, the lean-to a stall, the stall a full-on barn? 

From an airflow perspective, said Linsey Marr, who teaches environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, “outdoor” dining becomes a misnomer once a multi-sided enclosure comes into play. “Outdoor dining tents will usually offer ventilation somewhere in between that of a closed building and the great outdoors,” Marr told VICE by email. That means aerosols are less of a risk than they would be inside, but large droplet transmission is still on the (literal) table, and could even be amplified by a tent’s tight quarters. 

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“For individual tents, you're in a small space that isolates the air at your table from the air at other tables, so it's safest to do this only with other people who are in your own household or in your COVID-19 ‘bubble,’” Marr wrote. Great, table for me and 100 other people, please!

Corsi said any standalone dining structure with air-blocking potential is a deal-breaker for him, at least when it comes to the definition of outdoors, because restricted airflow is way more conducive to viral spread than if one were truly eating outside. If a structure has more than one wall and a roof, Corsi said, steer clear. “The inhalation of aerosol particles indoors can occur in the near field (close contact) or far field (more distant contact where aerosol particles still accumulate),” Corsi said. While clear eating huts or distanced seats under a plywood awning might limit near-field contact with strangers, far-field contact absolutely remains in play. “The enclosure arrangements that you mention above will lead to more far-field accumulation and less mixing in close contact than outdoors.  As such, they are NOT outdoor environments,” he said. 

Infectious disease epidemiologist Saskia Popescu agreed: Outdoor dining structures are an airflow no-go. (Say that five times fast when your brunchiest friend invites you out next weekend.) “Ultimately, the goal of outdoor dining is to have continued airflow,” Popescu told VICE. “From what I’ve seen, things with three walls do not allow adequate air to move through it, so the tent and cabins mostly defeat that purpose.” Popescu also said the ability to distance still matters, even if you’re dropping your napkin on gravel instead of slick tile flooring. “It’s not just about the ventilation, but also about the spacing,” she said. “They’re small spaces where people are really boxed in and not able to space out.”

Many “COVID-safe” outdoor dining structures also fall short from a regulatory perspective. “Any space that is enclosed by greater than 50 percent of its total perimeter, or by more than 42" in height as measured from the floor area is considered interior” per New York City guidelines, according to Andrés Ulises Cortés, principal architect at New York City-based Agencie. That’s less restrictive than Corsi’s “outdoors” definition, but it still takes tents, personal cabins, and anything three-walled out of the race immediately, a standard that seems to gel with airflow and epidemiological expertise… if not, you know, reality.  

“I see your point that merely placing these structures outside and essentially re-enclosing them with plexi, polycarbonate, or other materials aren't really making them "outdoor" spaces,” Cortés told VICE after viewing some photos of exemplary structures. 

Cortés said there are a few non-negotiable factors he’d need to consider eating in an outdoor structure. “The determinants should be: One, is there enough spacing between the groups of tables? Two, is there a way to allow for free-flowing air circulation? Three, is there sufficient room to allow the operators of the space to work without coming too close to user groups? Four, do the surface materials appear like they can be cleaned quickly and efficiently?” 

So the broad consensus (with the exception of one source, who cannot brook with even a single wall) is that two walls are fine; three walls is a danger zone; four is right out. It’s clear that many of the hastily assembled dining structures in place right now, especially the ones that are essentially outbuildings, aren’t actually a COVID-safe dining alternative—they’re an unintentionally deceptive option that sometimes fits legal definitions that are themselves removed from reality.

The sad kicker is that it’s hard to blame restaurants for clinging to whatever means they can to keep customers circulating—though they should obviously be liable for keeping their staff healthy, something that doesn’t line up with sending them to interact with customers in teeny, poorly ventilated spaces. Because there’s no more federal relief in sight for people or small businesses (Ted Cruz needs this vacation time to stare intently at his turkey or whatever), we’re all stuck cobbling together our own solutions, whether they keep us safe or not.

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