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Restaurants Scramble To Make Outdoor Dining Safer

Al fresco dining was once mostly a pleasant afterthought for American restaurants, but with sales losses estimated at $120B during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor seating is now a key component of keeping some eateries alive.

Ocean Drive in Miami Beach

"Cities and towns are allowing expanded outdoor opportunities in every part of the country," National Restaurant Association Vice President of State and Local Affairs Mike Whatley said. "This is the time of the year for that, and it's a way to expand that allows social distancing and serving customers in a safe way."

The expansion of outdoor seating began when states and especially local authorities said that restaurants could serve outside with fewer restrictions than inside, or in some cases, said that outdoor seating was the only option aside from takeout and delivery, Whatley said.

Restaurants nationwide responded by expanding their outdoor footprint. Online reservation specialist OpenTable reports about 10 times as many outdoor seatings nationwide at restaurants this spring (April 24 to May 18) compared with the same period a year ago.

Regulations for outdoor dining vary from place to place, but they often include (as Illinois' and Florida's guidelines do) social distance spacing, with tables must be more than 6 feet apart; that restaurant workers need to wash their hands often and wear masks; menus and other table items need to be disposable; and customers cannot serve themselves, such as at a salad bar. These rules are similar to those found in many café-heavy European countries as they reopen.

Enforcement is typically a local matter, as it has been with other social distancing rules. In Tampa, for instance, “café and retail zones” are monitored by the police and code enforcement officers.

In suburban locations, outdoor seating often means dedicating parking space to outdoor tables, an approach Chicago-area pizzeria Lou Malnati's, which has 56 locations, has taken. Some independent restaurants, such as Checkers Pancake House in Schaumburg, Illinois, have been able to do so as well, putting a half-dozen tables at 6-foot intervals on a section of parking lot, in cooperation with property management.

"It's extra work, getting in and out of the building constantly," owner Eleni Ntinis said. "But it's been worth it. Business has been much better, people are eager to come to restaurants again."

In denser urban areas, various approaches have included temporary measures, such as closing a few streets and allowing the placement of tables and chairs on sidewalks or in city-owned parking spaces.

In Chicago, where indoor dining is still prohibited by the state, the city has closed stretches of six streets to motor vehicles to give restaurants more outdoor space in a program it calls "Make Way For Diners." 

In coordination with the Illinois Restaurant Association, local chambers of commerce and various aldermen, the city identified six corridors to pilot expanded outdoor dining. Each was picked for its proximity to local businesses, ease of walking and biking and its impact on traffic.

The program, which kicked in June 13, allows existing, fully licensed restaurants to temporarily use streets or private property for outdoor dining and drinking until 11 p.m. Outdoor dining has proven popular in the test areas, sometimes perhaps too popular, with reports of people disregarding basic pandemic protocols, such as masks.

“I understand there’s a lot of enthusiasm on the part of restaurants and patrons to get back out to enjoy the great restaurant scene here in Chicago, but we absolutely have to do that abiding by the rules and regulations we have put in place around social distancing,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during a press conference on Monday.

New York City, long the epicenter of the pandemic, has been slower to allow outdoor dining, though to-go food and alcoholic beverages especially have been quite popular, The New York Times reports. Currently, outdoor dining is still banned, though it is expected to be allowed by the city as soon as early July.

Once restaurants can open for dining again, those in commercial corridors will be able to serve patrons outdoors and convert parking spaces for dine-in service, provided they follow state guidelines on social distancing and cleaning. There are also 45 miles of streets that are already closed to most traffic from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and restaurants will be able to expand onto those streets as well.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and the Department of Transportation have been tasked with monitoring the use of outdoor space by restaurants.

Parking lot dining at a Lou Malnati's location in suburban Chicago.

In Miami Beach, where restaurants are restricted to 50% capacity indoors, the city rolled out a pilot program along similar lines in May, closing some streets to vehicular traffic at the end of the month in a "Restaurant Recovery Outdoor Seating Pilot Program" that allows seating on those streets. Most notably, parts of Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue are closed until September to allow outdoor restaurant seating, as well as the well-known shopping street Lincoln Road.

“We’ve heard from our medical experts loud and clear that the outdoors is the better option right now,” Miami Beach Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter said during a recent virtual town hall, adding that closing Washington Avenue alone allowed more than 60 restaurants onto the public right of way.

"Outdoor seating has brought in a lot of business," said Adam Aynaly, owner of Groovy's, a pizzeria on Lincoln Road. "It's also meant an adjustment for us, following the guidelines on spacing and masks and single-use items like menus, but it's been worth it."

Aside from special programs, cities are also temporarily suspending code and permit regulations to allow restaurants to expand onto sidewalks, parking lots and other spaces. Tampa is an example of that approach, which also involves a few street closures.

In Washington, D.C., the local Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Commission is allowing restaurants to temporarily expand into “alleys, sidewalks, 'streateries' (extended curb lane use), plazas, and full travel lanes,” Eater Washington D.C. reports. Also included: “patios, courtyards, and surface parking lots,” though all of these must be at ground level.

"Oddly enough, patios are one of the more regulated parts of a restaurant. Often enough, in ordinary times, owners need to deal with a zoning committee, health department and an alcohol board to be able to serve food outside their doors," Whatley said.  

Recently, however, jurisdictions have been waving those requirements, at least temporarily, for restaurants that can provide a rough sketch of what the outdoor area will look like, Whatley said.

"So outdoor seating has been a success," he said. "But it's only one tool in the toolbox, but until we can have 100% indoor occupancy in a safe way, restaurants are going to suffer, and even after that, recovery will be a long process."

Another important tool for the recovery of the industry, Whatley points out, is allowing the sale at restaurants of alcohol for consumption elsewhere. A number of states have changed regulations recently to allow that, and he said it is possible the changes will be permanent in a lot of places.

"When restaurants reopen, they're investing in their outdoor space, because the seating restrictions outside are a lot looser in most places," James Beard Foundation Impact Programs Associate Emily Rothkrug said during a recent Urban Land Institute webinar.

Pig and Swig Restaurant Group Executive General Manager David Milligan said during the same webinar that one of his company's operations is a traditional brick-and-mortar, casual-seating restaurant with no opportunity for patio seating, and it is operating at about 10% of sales. 

By contrast, the Arkansas-based company opened a restaurant in early May, and one of its advantages is its patio, Milligan said.

"Customers order online and pick it up at the window. There's very little customer contact," he said. "It's exceeding all our expectations."