The Social Science Behind The Outdoor Dining Ban

Twelve months into the pandemic and it feels like we are right back to square one: many restaurants with outdoor spaces for diners were asked to shut down again to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But restaurant owners are frustrated and rightfully so. Science indicating the risks of socially distanced dining is limited, causing many to challenge these restrictions as arbitrary.

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Does outdoor dining increase the spread of the deadly coronavirus? We took a deeper look into the policy and rhetoric coming from both government officials and business owners to see what the truth is.

What are restaurant owners saying?

Restaurant owners continue to express frustration and cast doubt on the idea that socially distant, frequently sanitized outdoor restaurant services post any added risk. For the second time in one year they were asked to shut down all seating, thus plunging them into a dark world of uncertainties. 

They argue that health authorities are yet to provide evidence linking outdoor dining to the spread of COVID-19. They also claim unfair treatment, considering that shopping malls remain open, as well as many indoor facilities.

Many point to the additional precautions and effort made by food & beverage businesses, as stipulated by the health authorities, to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. From additional handwashing and sanitation, mask mandates, temperature checks, and spaced tables for social distancing, one might argue that these facilities appear to be the perfect example of adaptation and safety, given current circumstances. Still, health authorities closed them down. Why?

Trying to Find the Science

Health authorities and disease experts have gone to great lengths to convince people outdoor dining could spread COVID-19, but have failed to convince restaurant owners and workers who see their long-term investment going up in smoke if the stay-at-home orders remain in place. There doesn’t seem to be clear evidence that outdoor dining could be unsafe.

Although we’ve found a number of statements and even some expert studies suggesting differences between indoor and outdoor dining, but it seems the truth of the policy is more an element of social science than medical science.

Research indicates that it’s more likely to contact COVID-19 through close contact with an infected person than through airborne transmission. In airborne transmission, a person becomes infected when they breathe in respiratory droplets from an infected person. These droplets are spread when a person breathes, talks, sings or sneezes, which is hardly avoidable in a restaurant setting. Also, droplets linger in the air for a few minutes, and can spread to up to ten meters before landing on the ground. 

These respiratory droplets settle on surfaces such as tables, chairs, handrails, door locks, condiment containers, which are sharable among people. A person can contract COVID-19 by touching a surface with infected droplets and later touching their nose, mouth or eyes. Even with measures such as disinfection, hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing in outdoor dining restaurants, the risk of contracting COVID-19 still exists. 

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease expert, speaking on CNN, defended the stay-at-home guidelines in effect for the 36 million Californians, including the ban on outdoor dining. Dr. Fauci explained that they really had no choice but to close down all outdoor dining spots in the state. He insisted that wearing face masks was the best protection against the virus, and it would not be possible for diners to observe this safety precaution while having their meals in an outdoor setting.

Are you really safe in outdoor dining? Epidemiology professor at UCLA, Anne Rimoin, states that outdoor dining is safer than indoor dining, and attributes it to the circular ventilation systems often present indoors. In outdoor dining scenarios the virus can dissipate in air rather than be circulated in what is essentially a closed system.

But the type of outdoor dining structure plays an important role in determining the safety of those places. Outdoor dining structures such as dining tents change the equation completely. Dr. Rimoin states that dining tents don’t have the ventilation an indoor restaurant would have. She concludes that dining tents could be outdoor settings that are actually not outdoors at all.

In addition, a study by the CDC on community and close contact exposures associated with the novel coronavirus showed that adults who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were twice as more likely to have dined at a restaurant than those who tested negative.

The Social Science

Although the study doesn’t dive into the specifics of the rate of infection between indoor and outdoor experiences, it shows that onsite dining increases the chance of contracting the virus or at the very least the activities of those participating in onsite dining are perhaps a bit more cavalier.

That brings us to the most clear reason for the ban: the social unknowns. The CDC and local governments are not equipped nor could they move fast enough to create and inforce regulation that they felt would actually be enforceable. 

The nature of what an “outdoor dining” experience means can vary widely among restaurants. The reality of what is meant to be a safe outdoor dining experience can turn into a dangerous one depending on the restaurant settings, and even still a restaurants staff might not  be equipped or even incentivized to follow any social distancing, max capacity, or safety protocols. 

For example, if there is alcohol involved, people taking off their masks, frequent movement between the indoors and outdoors, and overcrowding inside among the restaurant staff, opportunities for infection are high. Also, does an outdoor restaurant on the street, where customers interact with pedestrians count as a safe and spacious dining environment? 

An ideal environment would perhaps be one where tables are at least six feet apart, and parklets have small walls that separate groups of customers from others. The outdoor spaces would also have to be far from pedestrians and joggers walking by the curbside. Such an arrangement would minimize close contact while allowing sufficient ventilation. 

However, in the end, it’s impossible to control or predict human behavior. People want to go outside, catch up with friends, hug and laugh together. One could argue that restricting social contact is impossible when the purpose of the function is social activity.

Bringing the Law into it

The fear of massive losses, and running out of business, has driven some restaurant owners to take to the courts in a huff. They appear to have obtained temporary reprieve as a judge in Los Angeles ruled that Los Angeles County officials acted arbitrarily when they made the decision to close outdoor eateries.

But the judge does say that County officials have a duty to perform the necessary risk-benefit analysis before making decisions about issues such as restaurant closures. Life has to continue in spite of the raging pandemic, and closing the restaurant may have worse effects on the population than the pandemic itself.

Thousands of restaurant workers were still showing up at their workstations despite the risk they pose. But as most restaurants adjust their operations to mitigate the losses occasioned by loss of customers due to the pandemic, there seems to be no end to the uncertainty. A good number of eateries have slimmed down their staff, retrenching most of their employees, and cutting down on overhead expenditure.

So what is the verdict?

There seems to be no definite answer to this question as no clear evidence is available to support or provide proof to the contrary, partially because it’s just too soon, and few empirical ways to gather and analyze this type of data. 

What is definite, however, is that the pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives across the country, and thousands more catch the infection every day. But eateries are worried the stay-at-home measures meant to combat the spread of the virus may risk destroying lives in other ways. 

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