Philly Is About to Start Outdoor Dining. But How Safe Is It?

Before you make a reservation for dinner this Friday night, consider whose safety you're willing to risk.

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Parks on Tap at the Schuylkill Banks in 2019 | Photo by Albert Yee

Weeks after Governor Tom Wolf said outdoor dining would be allowed in the yellow phase, Mayor Kenney has decided Philadelphia is ready. In an updated resource guide shared on Monday, Kenney said restaurants with outdoor dining spaces will be able to resume serving in those spaces starting on Friday, June 12th. According to the guide, an application for outdoor dining licenses for restaurants that don’t currently have them is in the works.

Exact guidelines for restaurants outdoor dining operations have not yet been released, but we can expect to see similar rules to those that have been put in place in other parts of the states: masked servers, diners un-masking only when seated, social distancing measures and other common-sense rules. But as virus-related hospitalizations surge in states that have relaxed stay-at-home guidelines, lots of people still have questions about the safety of these outdoor dining experiences.

“Thinking has shifted a lot in the last few weeks from ‘everybody stay home, nobody do anything’ to more of a harm-reduction framework,” says Alison Buttenheim, a professor and public health researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, whose expertise is in the behavioral aspects of infectious disease prevention.

The guidelines are likely to do a reasonably good job protecting diners, she says. In the outdoors, with masks and having relatively short conversations, the risk of exposure is fairly low. She also says she has not been particularly worried about surfaces, which the CDC has stated do not “easily” spread the virus. Though diners should feel reasonably safe if the guidelines are followed, Buttenheim stressed the broader need to move away from worrying solely about our own safety, and give consideration to the broader population.

“I think the worry here is for employees who are at high risk,” she said. “Or who feel like their restaurant isn’t following all the guidelines, will feel pressure to be at work and that may not be safe.”

Back-of-house employees, who stand side-by-side in small spaces for eight or twelve hour shifts, are at particular risk, Buttenheim said. Even with masking and good hand hygiene, the length of exposure in poorly ventilated areas is a factor, as is the dampness of the environment. Wet masks, she said, do not offer protection. Businesses need to be offering multiple clean masks per shift to employees, adding another financial burden to already taxed restaurant owners. Anything kitchens can do to spread out employees and increase air flow is going to be important.

One of the most important elements of preventing increased spread, Buttenheim adds, is workers ability to stay home if they are sick or have been exposed. In early contact tracing efforts, she recounted, a Walmart employee was contacted. Though she was aware her daughter had tested positive for COVID-19 and she herself was showing symptoms, the woman said she would need a doctor’s note in order to not go into work.

“It was like ‘I can’t get a doctor’s note in the next 10 minutes, so I’m going into work,'” Buttenheim said. “It’s not just whether the laws are in place, but we have to make it really, really easy and a low bar for an employee to not show up to work and not put their job or their paycheck at risk.”

For restaurant owners, offering that kind of paid sick leave is likely to be quite difficult.

Ultimately, the decision to go out to dinner is a personal one, Buttenheim says. She encourages diners to consider their own level of exposure and how that might put people nearby at risk. If, say, you’ve been attending a lot of protests, it might be best to quarantine for two weeks and get tested on day five, and skip dinner out in the mean time.

“We really need to move to running society in a way where all people are protected,” Buttenheim said. “That way, at a population level, we can drive this pandemic down.”