The effort to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control is not going at all well. In Seattle and across the United States, infection rates and hospitalizations are spiking, then spiking more and spiking again, with a recent Washington state Department of Health (DOH) release saying that data statewide shows “COVID-19 continues spreading at a breakneck pace as hospitalizations climb.” Secretary of Health John Wiesman calls the situation “incredibly urgent.” Staying home, the DOH says, is still the most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and when you’re out, wearing a mask and practicing proper physical distancing are key.

Indoor seating at restaurants is shut down statewide until Dec. 14, while outdoor dining is still allowed, under the premise that increased airflow decreases the chance of virus transmission. But how safe is it to dine at a restaurant outside?

Los Angeles County — where the weather right now is certainly better suited to doing things in free-flowing open air — decided it’s not safe enough. Last Wednesday, the public health department there instituted a three-week ban on outdoor restaurant dining, citing “alarming levels” of COVID-19 cases. Both New Mexico and Oregon have also taken the step of temporarily banning outdoor restaurant dining along with indoor restaurant dining.

So should you dine in an outdoor restaurant environment — and if so, what should that look like? Here’s a take on current best practices with information from Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington and a leading expert on COVID-19 and workplaces; and Gabriel Spitzer, communications specialist with Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Takeout is still safest: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates “food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick-up” as lowest risk. Baker concurs, saying, “I’ll support the local restaurants that I enjoy by getting takeout, which at this point is probably the only safe option.”


Outdoor structures should be open on at least two sides: If you’re dining outdoors all warm and cozy in Seattle right now, that’s no good. Public Health’s Spitzer explains, “We know the virus can build up in the air of poorly ventilated spaces … an enclosed space that happens to be outdoors should also be open enough to allow free airflow.” Three-sided structures are allowed, he says, “only if they include an opening large enough to ensure cross ventilation.” Baker, however, is not comfortable with this latter COVID-19 judgment call. “More than two sides,” she says, “you’re putting up a barrier to airflow, so that is concerning from an exposure perspective.”

Tables should still be six feet apart: Spitzer says this stipulation remains in place outside.

Restaurant employees should wear face coverings and customers should, too: When not eating or drinking, everyone needs to be masked up, Spitzer says.

Outdoor dining with those from outside your household is permitted, but: Baker points out, “You’re still having people gathering from different families, doing activities where they can’t wear a mask — talking and laughing and generating particles” while eating and drinking at one table together, which is not safe. She also voices concern for “servers coming in and out,” who must be masked but still are put at increased risk. (Spitzer notes that outdoor dining parties are limited to groups of five or fewer, while “indoor gatherings with people from other households are prohibited for the next four weeks.”)

And about those enclosed pod, bubble or “igloo” structures: Spitzer says such standalone situations are “limited to one dining party [of] no more than five at a time, and must be aired out for at least 10 minutes, cleaned and sanitized in between uses.” However, Baker says, “If you’re bringing together [people from] multiple households or pods, you’re walking into a situation where it is possible to pass COVID-19.” Moreover, when it comes to the restaurant worker who’s going to clean during a 10-minute interval, that “could potentially be a high-exposure situation for them to walk into.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to include additional context in the photo caption. San Fermo, whose dining dome is pictured in the photois taking precautions to keep its domes sanitized between parties and restricting the occupancy of its domes to single tables with people from the same household.