As Washington enters the first phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, the state of restaurant dining is in flux. With COVID cases still at high levels across the state, indoor dining remains a no-go, but outdoor seating is still allowed at a limited capacity. In such a cold and rainy season, some restaurants have chosen to set up fortified and enclosed structures outside their establishments — and the state recently released more specific guidelines on how they should be set up, with complicated instructions.
There are four options for outdoor seating, per the new frameworks. Two are similar to what the state’s health officials already sanctioned, including completely open-air patios and more enclosed small group structures, such as tents, domes, and pods. But one of the significant new allowances is that seating can be set up around bay doors or multiple open windows, if there’s adequate ventilation on both sides of the dining space. Restaurants can also set up areas with two or more “permeable” walls — examples include screened openings, open tent panels, and ventilation holes in side panels — and still be in compliance. The state calls these set-ups “open air” seating.
But, wait, there’s more. If a restaurant does set up seating around bay doors or the “permeable” walls, it must also constantly track CO2 levels, and adjust the seating and air flow within certain limits. If CO2 levels exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) for 15 minutes, diners must be relocated to an open‐air seating option that meets the state’s requirements. For what it’s worth, CO2 monitors are not difficult to obtain, but they can cost anywhere from $30 to $200. From the guidelines it’s also unclear whether staff needs particular training on monitoring CO2 levels, or what the penalties might be for not properly tracking those numbers.
For those who may be confused by the new regulations, there’s a chart (shown below) that shows exactly what kinds of set-ups are allowed in each outdoor dining option. Officials also caution restaurants to continue following COVID-19 guidance for all, including keeping tables six feet apart and ensuring customers and staff always wear cloth face coverings except while eating and drinking. The outdoor seating plans must also comply with local building codes and provide adequate lighting for cleaning.
Many wonder whether certain outdoor set-ups, even with complex and detailed regulations, are really safe. 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 there are still questions around them. If only one household (presumably) is in a dome at a time, then aerosols may not be traveling to other tables like they would inside a restaurant, but staff could potentially be at risk of COVID transmission, even if all precautions to sanitize the area and wear masks are taken.
“We know the virus can build up in the air of poorly ventilated, indoor spaces,” Gabriel Spitzer, communications specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County, has said. “Therefore, an enclosed space that happens to be outdoors should also be open enough to allow free airflow.”
Meanwhile, the costs associated with outdoor dining — such as heat lamps and durable tents that won’t collapse in strong winds — could be prohibitive for businesses already hanging on by a thread, even once they’re able to navigate the state’s guidelines. That makes the push for broader relief at the state and federal level ever more urgent, no matter how much people eat al fresco.