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Should you dine in a restaurant tent this winter? It depends on 5 safety factors

Business Insider logo Business Insider 10/30/2020 hbrueck@businessinsider.com (Hilary Brueck)
People dine in plastic tents for social distancing at a restaurant in Manhattan on October 15, 2020 in New York City, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images © Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images People dine in plastic tents for social distancing at a restaurant in Manhattan on October 15, 2020 in New York City, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
  • Outdoor dining has been seen as a relatively safe activity during the pandemic, because there's good airflow, and sunlight, which both help nix the coronavirus. 
  • But as winter descends on the US and Europe, more outdoor dining spots are erecting tents to keep their diners cozy.
  • Those tents are not, necessarily, as safe as the great outdoors.
  • Insider surveyed three leading public health experts about dining out in tents.
  • All three said they'd be cautious about it, and make sure there was enough airflow, space, and time allowed between dining parties. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

By this point in the pandemic, we know that dining outdoors is safer than dining indoors. There's far better airflow for the coronavirus to dissipate outside. 

But what happens when you throw a tent into the mix? 

As restaurants across the US retrofit their outdoor seating arrangements for the more blustery winter months ahead, they've erected plexiglass walls, set up outdoor heaters, and even popped up little personal plastic tents and igloos in the hopes of making diners feel comfortable enough — and warm enough — to keep on coming back for more meals. 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to whether dining inside a tent during the pandemic is safe. Insider spoke with three leading public health experts who gave us five things to consider before you do it. 

Personal dining tents are OK, but not as good as being 'outdoors and in the sunlight'

a group of people sitting on a cart: People dine in social distancing bubble tents at Cafe Du Soleil on September 27, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images © Noam Galai/Getty Images People dine in social distancing bubble tents at Cafe Du Soleil on September 27, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Dr. Megan Murray, an infectious disease expert at Harvard, says that there is a spectrum of risk to consider when weighing whether to dine out during the pandemic.

Some of the very safest dining possible, she says, would be outdoors, in the sun, and with a decent breeze, at a to-go style eatery where "you don't even have a server coming up close to you."

Conversely, some of the most dangerous pandemic dining would be "very crowded spaces without good ventilation, like bars." 

Tent dining sits somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

"It's probably better than being in a tightly enclosed space without any open windows in a bar, but it's not being outdoors and in the sunlight either," Murray said. "To assume that because you're in a tent you're getting the same advantage as being outside, just because you're cold, is not really correct."

Murray said that if she "had to go with a tent," right now, she would pick one of the individual ones, meant to seat only one party at a time. 

Professor Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses circulate in the atmosphere, generally agrees with that stance. 

a person standing next to a fence: Women sit inside a social distancing bubble tent, set up at the Cafe Tirree in Berlin, Germany on October 24, 2020. Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images © Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Women sit inside a social distancing bubble tent, set up at the Cafe Tirree in Berlin, Germany on October 24, 2020. Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"When I first saw those tents, the little individual tents, I was like, 'Oh, that's terrible. It's indoors!' But then I realized, well, if there's only one party in there, then you're not really sharing the air with other people," Marr said. "So, I wouldn't go in there with people outside my bubble, but I think if you minimize contact with the waiter, those seem reasonable."

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert who works in infection prevention in Arizona, says she'd still be worried about dining in "anything that is fully enclosed." 

"The more contained, the worse," she wrote Insider in an email. 

If you are considering dining out in a tent, here are the five items to consider first.

1. Staying in your household 'pod' when dining out, and avoiding crowds, is best 

a store front at night: People dine inside of a plastic tent outside a restaurant in Cologne as city continues to impose more restrictions to cope with increasing coronavirus cases, on October 27, 2020. Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images © Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images People dine inside of a plastic tent outside a restaurant in Cologne as city continues to impose more restrictions to cope with increasing coronavirus cases, on October 27, 2020. Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images

First, assess how crowded the space is. 

Marr says she's only comfortable frequenting places where the seating is outdoors, and the tables are "far, far apart."

So far, she's dined out twice during the pandemic. 

"I would do it if it's uncrowded and no one is any closer than 10 feet away, and the conditions were not stagnant, there was like a gentle breeze or something," she added.

Another factor to consider is how rowdy the patrons seem. A raucous scene could drive up transmission. 

"If there's a bunch of people drinking and kind of carousing, I mean, it looks like it's fun, but they might not be attending to your safety as much as you want them to," Murray said. "It's no fun for us. But you know, for the time being, I think that's how we have to go."

2. Ideally, there's some downtime in between tent groups, to let the tent air out

There have been cases of coronavirus transmission happening through the air at further than six feet of distance. This worries many health experts because it suggests that tiny virus particles, called aerosols, can remain aloft and float around in space, maybe even for a little while after a sick person has left the area. 

Putting some time — and good ventilation — in between dining groups helps mitigate this risk. 

"In between different parties, you'd want to kind of open it up and allow time for it to air out before the next party goes in there," Marr said. 

That would lower, but not necessarily eliminate completely, your chances of getting sick from a previous' diners germs in a tent. 

"We don't really know how long aerosols last, but at least the larger droplets will have fallen out of the atmosphere by the time you get in there," Murray said. 

Another thing that people can do to prevent more transmission of the virus is to keep their voices low while they're out

"We know that we release more aerosols when we talk louder," Marr said.  

3. Befriend breezes, fans, and sunlight

a group of people standing around a plane: A tent over an outside dining area at a restaurant in Koreatown on August 27, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images © Noam Galai/Getty Images A tent over an outside dining area at a restaurant in Koreatown on August 27, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Any kind of enclosure is going to reduce the benefits of natural airflow outside. The question is how much. So take a look at the material your tent is made of. 

"If it's just plastic, that probably doesn't have a lot of flow air flow through it," Murray said.

In New York City, for example, outdoor dining restrictions stipulate that 50% of the side walls of tents need to "remain open" for outdoor dining. Otherwise, fully-enclosed tents must limit their seating capacity to 25%, essentially adhering to the same restrictions as indoors.

Plastic domes and other personal tents for individual parties are allowed in New York too, but they "must have adequate ventilation to allow for air circulation," the city says on its website

"I personally am comfortable with a roof and maybe one wall for weather protection," Popescu said.

4. Make sure everyone's mask game is strong  

Another thing to consider, before deciding whether to dine out at a given location, is to notice what's going on with the masks. 

Murray, for one, checks to make sure her server will practice proper masking etiquette. 

"If they're wearing a mask, if it looks like they're wearing it properly, or if it looks like one of those really flimsy masks sort of hanging around their chin and not on their face," she said. "That's what scares me the most, if I went to a restaurant. The server is standing above you, and respiratory droplets fall down, and they're usually pretty close."

Popescu said, similarly, that she privileges "restaurants that ask patrons to mask when not eating and drinking. " 

5. Consider case counts in your area 

Finally, before you dine out, consider what's happening right now where you live. Check out COVID-19 statistics on your local health department website if they're available, and consider whether or not infection and hospitalization rates are on an uptick

"We are all ready to just not cook for ourselves, and go out, I totally get it," Murray said. "But you've gotta keep an eye on what is today's infection count and know that every time it goes up, that puts your actual risk from one of those events much higher."

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