When it comes to COVID-19 risk, what counts as ‘outdoor’ dining?

Ranking risk from inflatable igloos to chilly patios.
Outdoor cafe
The key to COVID-safe dining is plenty of ventilation, which is experienced best outside with minimal structures. Pixabay

Even in the chilliest of weather, a trip out for a tasty dinner can provide some much-needed excitement. However, with COVID-19 still looming, eating inside with people from outside your household is a definite no-no.

In some of the balmier spots around the country, you still might be able to enjoy al fresco dining without getting frostbite. But restaurants in colder climates still need to make money, and for many, that’s meant serving people inside structures that mimic everything from backyard sheds to bouncy castles.

But when it comes to COVID transmission, does eating in your own personal hamster ball, igloo, or dog house count as eating outside? According to Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s public health school who specializes in industrial hygiene, it really depends.

Popping outdoor diners under tarps to keep out the sun and rain during warm weather is one thing—if air is still freely flowing, you get most of the benefits of being outside. But as temperature control becomes more of a concern, those “outdoor” structures can quickly turn into “indoor” environments.

“It seems like as it’s gotten colder and wetter, you’re seeing structures getting more elaborate,” Baker says. And once you’ve put up four walls and a roof, you might as well just seat people inside. Even if those walls are made of vinyl instead of drywall, you’re still not getting the airflow you need to reduce the risk of viral transmission.

Here’s the breakdown of what kind of outdoor dining truly counts as outdoor, in terms of lowering your COVID risk, and what sorts of restaurant structures you should avoid at all costs.

Igloos and other four-sided structures: riskiest

As is the case with many of the compromises that we’ve had to make during this pandemic, the igloos and bubble-type outdoor dining contraptions popping up across the country have their pros and cons. One benefit is that the personal pods secure groups of people into their own little isolated clusters. Unlike being inside a big restaurant, where airflow can pass viral particles all over the room, you probably won’t catch COVID from a diner sitting in another igloo. Your main risk is exposure to other people inside your bubble.

But one of the significant issues here is that people don’t necessarily go out to eat with members of their own households. If you’re meeting up with a friend, seeing them in an igloo puts you both at high risk, as you’re pretty much stuck breathing one another’s exhalations.

“You’re creating a small space that’s enclosed, so that’s not able to get cross breezes in terms of air flow,” Baker says.

Even if you’re only going out to eat with people in your quarantine pod, those igloos full of stagnant air can still be risky. Consider the fact that your fellow diners aren’t the only folks at risk when you go out to eat: You’re also exposing restaurant staff to your germs (and vice versa).

Even if a server only pops into your bubble for a moment at a time—to take your order and hand over your meals—those tiny interactions are happening over and over again throughout a shift, and with lots of other people. Someone is also going to have to enter each igloo to clean it between seatings. Baker points out that this means workers may have to take in stagnant air that has been breathed in by people from multiple different households, upping their risk of catching a virus that may be floating around.

The takeaway: When it comes to igloos, blow up structures, and other enclosed pods for outdoor dining, sitting with people outside your quarantine pod is a big no-no. And even if you’re dining exclusively with members of your own household, these structures are still risky for both you and the people serving you.

And if the structure in question is big enough to fit multiple tables, avoid at all costs—that’s essentially just a poofier version of an indoor restaurant.

Structures with two or three sides: somewhat risky

The happy middle ground between no protection from the elements and being inside a restaurant is something built more like a shack, with two or three sides made of wood or glass. Of course, the most important part of eating outside is getting that good, COVID-19 diminishing breeze going, and airflow can vary widely between different types of sheds.

“I don’t think all outdoor structures are created equal, and I don’t think all outdoor structures are safe,” says Baker. “The benefit of being outside is that there’s this awesome ventilation system that’s always mixing the air and picking up pockets of virus,” she says. The more walls a structure has missing, the more likely it is to have outdoor-esque airflow.

But even if you see an open side or two, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for social distancing. Baker says in addition to keeping as many walls open as possible, different tables need to be safely spaced apart, especially since people spend so much of dinnertime without masks on.

So if you see a tempting pop-up outside of your favorite dining establishment, start your safety assessment by counting those sides. If the structure has three sides or more, take a good look at how much ventilation there really is—do those sides have any lattices or doorways cut into them to increase airflow, or is this basically just an indoor space squeezed onto a sidewalk? And no matter how breezy the structure looks, make sure your table is at least six feet away from any others before you consider chowing down.

Eating outside or getting takeout: low risk

If you must eat at a restaurant, doing it in open air is the best way to make sure the wind can scoop up any questionable plumes of virus and keep everyone safe. Luckily, lots of places have figured out how to turn backyard gardens and sidewalks into slightly-warmer-than-usual havens using tricks like space heaters. So, if getting out is on your absolute to-do list, pack your mittens and hat, order yourself a hot cocoa, and don’t forget to social distance regardless.

But the safest way to support your favorite local restaurant is to get takeout or delivery and eat at home, Baker says. That way you aren’t risking getting other people in the restaurant sick—and you can still show some love to the food industry (and your belly).