On Tuesday, smoke from wildfires across the region reached the Seattle area in full force, deteriorating air quality so much that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) determined that being outside was unhealthy for everyone. King County’s public health department is now advising residents to stay inside with the windows closed, particularly pregnant women, children, those with underlying health conditions, and people over the age of 65.
For restaurants, this puts the future of outdoor dining — which has been a key component of reopening during the pandemic — in question. There has been no directive to actually close patio seating, but if people are staying inside to avoid the smoke, the demand for outdoor service will likely be limited at best.
“According to our Environmental Health toxicologist, the risks from smoke exposure while eating outdoors will be different for each individual based on age, underlying health conditions, and other individual characteristics,” Doug Williams, media relations director for Public Health Seattle & King County, tells Eater Seattle. “Obviously, the more time spent outdoors when these conditions exist increases a person’s exposure to smoke, and that’s why it’s recommended that people stay home and inside while unhealthy air quality conditions persist.”
It’s unclear how long the latest advisory will last. As those who have experienced wildfire smoke in Western Washington know well, the overall air quality depends on shifting winds and weather patterns. Conditions can be dangerous for a few hours, a few days, or even longer. PSCAA expects that current conditions may last through Wednesday, at least.
In the meantime, the bad air is yet another obstacle for Seattle’s dining scene. In August, the city finally gave approval to cut red tape around street closures, allowing for more outdoor plazas, which have gained momentum in recent weeks. This was meant to attract more diners to restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while also reducing the risk of disease transmission, since open air environments are largely considered safer than enclosed spaces.
But that’s all moot during wildfire season, especially if those with underlying health conditions are putting themselves at risk of inhaling hazardous smoke particles by going outside — and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 if they’re in an enclosed space with groups of people.
Miki Sodos, who co-owns Cafe Pettirosso on Capitol Hill (which recently expanded its patio seating), says business was slower on Tuesday, but was unsure if it was because of the smoke. As part of the city’s new street closure initiative to help retail businesses create more outdoor seating during the pandemic, Cafe Pettirosso and other restaurants near Chophouse Row recently created an open air dining plaza on 11th Ave below Pike Street. The area is cordoned off for dining Thursday through Sunday, but Sodos says she’s working with French restaurant Marmite in making it open daily since the first weekend was a success: “It felt like our neighborhood again.”
With only a few weeks left of warm, sunny weather, every day counts for local businesses like Cafe Pettirosso banking on the additional revenue from outdoor dining. Their only hope may be that the smoke clears soon.