Post #830: Outdoor seating?

Posted on September 29, 2020

Yesterday, in Post #829, I analyzed the impact that heating outdoor dining areas areas might have on risk of COVID-19 transmission.  My conclusion was that it wouldn’t make the dining area any less safe.  And that it would improve the public health if it would keep people from dining in enclosed indoor spaces, because that’s where the real risk of transmission occurs.  The unrestricted air flow of outdoor spaces makes them much safer than equivalent indoor spaces.

That posting was prompted by an email exchange with a friend.  As part of that, I started my discussion by stating something that I thought was obvious:

Let me assume that to qualify as "outdoor", they can't roll down the sides of their tents. So that "outdoor" is synonymous with no walls. (For sure, they should not be allow to roll those tent sides down, because that defeats the whole purpose. But you never know what the lawyers are going to think of next.)

And so, what should arrive in my inbox today, from that same friend, but a link to this article that came out today in the Patch.  The gist of that is that, yes indeed, Fairfax County is considering allowing restaurants to enclose their tents, and still call it outdoor dining.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I went tracking down the facts.  As near as I can tell, 1) Virginia doesn’t define outdoor dining, 2) any details like that were defined by local ordinance, and 3) yes, indeed, the Fairfax County local ordinance (.pdf) is what specifies that any outdoor dining tents must be open on all four sides.

Currently, Fairfax County is explicit about this issue, emphasis mine:

g. Any tent must (1) be flame-resistant with appropriate labeling affixed to the tent material, (2) remain open on all sides, (3) be located at least 20 feet from any building, and (4) be securely anchored to prevent collapse or uplift during inclement weather

And that is, I believe, in agreement with our best understanding of how this disease spreads.  Epidemiology from both China and Japan identified vastly lower rates of COVID-19 transmission in outdoor settings.  And virtually every country in the world has emphasized outdoor dining over indoor dining as a COVID-19 safety measure.  The US (or, US states) included.

Most recently,  a small study by the CDC seemed to validate the dangers of eating in restaurants.  That was the most prominent identifiable risk factor identified in a small study of persons who did and did not contract COVID-19.  (Original research is here, but you’re probably better off reading a popular press account of that.)

Anyway, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  I guess as long as Fairfax County and restaurant owners understand what they are doing, and why they are doing this, I can’t really complain.  So let me clarify a few things.

If you enclose a tent, so that there is no longer free flow of air, that’s probably no better than indoor dining, from the standpoint of COVID-19 risk.  You’ll have a higher rate of exchange between indoor and outdoor air, which would reduce likelihood of “far field” spread of disease.  That is, prevent some super-spreader from infecting the whole room.  But “far field” spread is rare.  The main risk of spread is from “near field” spread.  That’s the risk you face if some person at the table next to you is infected, and you breathe in his or her aerosol emissions containing COVID-19 virus.  If you enclose the tent, you’re lose the free-flowing breeze that was (presumably) preventing”near field” spread of disease.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that an enclosed room is an enclosed room.  If it’s brick that stops the air from flowing through, or canvas, is really just a detail.

Any readers of this old enough to remember when everybody smoked?  Ever attend a circus as a kid?  Those took place in tents.  And after a fairly brief period, the air would be so hazy with cigarette smoke that you could see the beams of the spotlights.  Heck, at least with a real indoor setting, you have a real HVAC system.  Plausibly, a big tent with some sort of makeshift HVAC might have worse air quality than an equivalent indoor space. 

So if you view these enclosed tents as just more indoor dining space, so that you can keep your customers spread out per the law, and accommodate more customers, that’s fine.  So long as restaurant owners and restaurant customers understand that.  And acknowledge that the safety provided by fully-exposed seating has been lost.

In which case, they should have been doing this all along.  Enclose them, air condition them, and let the customers eat in comfort.  And then, in the winter, heat them.  So long as everyone understands that, functionally, they are eating indoors, even if the walls and roof are made of canvas.

The risk there is that some customers may have only felt comfortable patronizing a restaurant because of that safe space.  Presumably, if all are fully informed, the restaurants will lose those customers.

On the other hand, if restaurants are going to pretend that a fully-enclosed tent remains “COVID-safe”, then I would find that objectionable.  It’s not as if sitting in a parking lot provides mystical protection against COVID-19.  And if they entice customers to patronize a restaurant, with the expectation that the heated, enclosed tent is as safe as true outdoor dining, then I think that would be misleading, to the point of being fraudulent.

So on this one, I guess I’ll have to put my faith in the power of full information.  As long as customers understand the risks, I guess my view as an economist is, let them do it, and let the market decide if that’s smart or not. 

The reason being that we do, in fact, allow indoor dining below listed capacity.  So this wouldn’t be creating some new risk class.  This would simply allow restaurant owners and operators to expand that precious indoor space, while maintaining the capacity limits and table space currently mandated by law.

That said, as of yesterday, I would not have thought, in a million years, that the next evolution of temporary outdoor dining would be to enclose it.  And so wipe out the substantial public-health advantages that if offered, over indoor dining.  I can’t help but have the feeling that we’re still not taking this whole deadly pandemic thing quite seriously enough yet.