On Monday, Washington state officials released some new, specific guidance regarding outdoor seating geared for the colder season. As previously mandated, most outdoor structures must have no more than two walls to allow proper ventilation. But smaller spaces — such as domes and pods — are now allowed as well, if they follow proper COVID-19 sanitation guidance, are limited to one dining party at a time, keep any doors and windows open when diners are seated inside, and are aired out for at least 10 minutes, cleaned, and sanitized in-between uses. Heating elements are permitted for outdoor spaces if they do not produce carbon monoxide, meaning no propane.
The state’s updated guidance for outdoor seating comes a day after Gov. Jay Inslee announced that indoor dining across Washington would be banned until at least December 14. Outdoor service is still allowed under current capacity limits, with tables capped at five people each. Takeout and delivery are also permitted, but with many restaurants in Seattle already investing money in winterizing patios, these new rules should assist some chefs and owners who were unsure about what was permitted. The Washington Hospitality Association said on a conference call this weekend that it has been pushing for such winterized “tenting” guidance for the past six weeks.
In Seattle, increased outdoor seating was a boost late in the summer, as the city loosened some rules so that restaurants could get free permits to expand service onto sidewalks and streets (the free permits have recently been extended until October 2021). A few restaurants have started to adjust to the colder weather, through heating elements, blankets, and tents, or the more extreme domes, as seen outside places like Maximilien near Pike Place Market and San Fermo in Ballard.
“We’ve had [the domes] since spring 2019, we just extended the time they are available this year because some people feel safer eating inside our igloos rather than indoor with other people,” says Maximilien co-owner Willy Boutillier, noting that the structures are ventilated and should comply with the new guidance. “It’s more like private dining, unlike the larger tents we are seeing around town that are set up to protect several tables from the rain.”
Studies indicate that there is a lower exposure risk to COVID-19 when outdoors, contingent on restaurants following strict social distancing and other safety guidelines. But well-ventilated tents seem much different than enclosed outdoor structures, and many question whether those domes or so-called “igloos” that have popped up — not just in Seattle, but around the country — are really all that much safer than dining inside. “We know the virus can build up in the air of poorly ventilated, indoor spaces, presenting an increased risk of transmitting COVID-19,” says Gabriel Spitzer, communications specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Therefore, an enclosed space that happens to be outdoors should also be open enough to allow free airflow.”
Linda Derschang, owner of Linda’s Tavern, King’s Hardware, and Oddfellows, hopes that the city of Seattle will provide some more assistance when it comes to construction of more semi-permanent outdoor dining structures, like those seen in New York City. “The tents that we have been using for the last month at Oddfellows and King’s Hardware are not holding up in the weather and we haven’t even gotten into the heart of winter,” she says.
On Sunday, Mayor Jenny Durkan hinted that more details on expanding outdoor dining during the winter would be forthcoming, although it’s unclear whether that refers to expanded permits, financial assistance for winterization, or a combination of the two.