Yurts, igloos and pop-up domes: how safe is it to eat out in restaurants this winter?


With the onset of winter and the US coronavirus outbreak in full swing, the restaurant industry – with losses of $ 235 billion in 2020 – is sticking to techniques to keep eating al fresco even during the cold and volatility of a US Winter to maintain.

Yurts, greenhouses, igloos, tents, and all kinds of partially open outdoor structures have popped up in restaurants across the country. Owners have turned to these as a lifeline to fill some tables by at least offering the option of a safer dining experience.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep the outdoor dining season as long as possible,” said Mike Whatley of the National Restaurant Association.

Dire times forced industry to find ways to survive. Whatley said more than 100,000 restaurants are either “completely closed or not open to business in any way”.

“It’s going to be a tough and tough winter,” Whatley said. “If you see that outdoor dining is not feasible from a cold weather perspective or, unfortunately, from a government regulation perspective, more operators will go out of business.”

In the past few months, many cities and states have imposed a number of restrictions on indoor eating due to the high risk of the virus spreading in these crowded environments.

Many have limited occupancy for restaurants. Some have stopped eating indoors altogether, including Michigan and Illinois. Others have gone further. Los Angeles and Baltimore have stopped eating both indoors and outdoors. Only one implementation is permitted.

Those who can serve customers outdoors, on patios or sidewalks develop creative adaptations that allow eating in the cold depths of winter.

Embrace the ‘yurt’

Washington state stopped eating indoors in mid-November and maintained that ban as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

On a stormy December evening, waiters at Seattle’s high-end Canlis restaurant huddled in the parking lot, clad in flannel and puffed vests, while their boss, Mark Canlis, gave an encouraging talk before a busy night.

“The hospitality out here is exactly the same as there,” Canlis said, gesturing toward his restaurant overlooking Lake Union. “But it really looks different, so try to invite her into the ‘yurt’ of what we’re doing.”

Canlis has built an elaborate yurt village in the parking lot next to his family’s famous restaurant.

It includes an outdoor fireplace and wood-paneled walkways that wind between small pine trees and the round tents. The cluster of yurts with their open window flaps is the Canlis family’s best effort to keep good food alive during the pandemic and typically long and humid Seattle winter (locally known as the “Big Dark”).

Arriving guests are greeted with a forehead thermometer to measure the temperature and a cup of hot apple cider.

“It gives us an excuse to think differently,” Canlis said of the restrictions on outdoor dining.

The yurts are designed to protect guests from the elements and from infectious particles in the air that could otherwise spread from table to table.

Eating in such structures is not without risk: guests can still catch the virus by a meal companion if they sit next to each other for a long time without a mask. But Canlis said there is no easy way to tell if every member of a meal group comes from the same household.

“I’m not the governor or the CDC,” he said. “I assume that you take your health into your own hands when you are at the table.”

Under the new rules for outdoor dining in Washington, Canlis must consider issues such as proper ventilation of yurts and disinfecting expensive furniture.

“What is the square inch yurt volume space? How big are the door and the windows? How many minutes will we allow the yurt to breathe? “Said Canlis.

The structures are cleaned after each meal party ends a meal and leaves; While eating, the waiters quickly step in and out of N95 masks.

Igloos, domes, tents: how safe are they?

Another, more modern twist on alfresco dining are transparent igloos and other domelike structures that have become popular with restaurant owners across the country.

Tim Baker, who owns the San Fermo Italian restaurant in Seattle, had to order his igloos from Lithuania and assemble them with the help of his son.

The policy of his restaurant is that only two people can be in an igloo at a time to reduce the risk of people from different households congregating.

“You are completely locked up in your own space with someone in your own household. Those domes will protect you from all the people walking by on the sidewalk and the server won’t go in with you, ”he said.

Baker said he had consulted with airflow experts and decided to use an industrial hot air cannon after each group of guests had left the igloo and before the next set enters – with the aim of removing any remaining infectious particles from the air in the structure to free.

“You’re firing that cannon and it just pushes the air through very aggressively,” Baker said.

The igloos in his restaurant have become a major attraction.

“I’m especially proud of everything we can do to get people excited now because we need it,” he said. “We’re all emotionally depressed by it.”

Not all outdoor dining structures are created alike, said Richard Corsi, air quality expert and dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University in Oregon.

“There’s a wide range,” said Corsi. “The safest thing we are talking about is not a wall – a roof. And then the worst is completely closed – which is essentially an inner tent – especially if it doesn’t have really good ventilation and physical distance. “

In fact, Corsi said, some outdoor dining areas that are closed and have lots of tables next to each other are more dangerous than indoors because of poor ventilation.

Eating that is really outdoors, with no temporary protection at all, is much safer because there is “higher air velocities, more scattering and more mixing than indoors,” said Corsi, which means that breath droplets containing the virus do not accumulate and are less focused when people are close together.

“If you have heaters then you will actually have pretty good ventilation,” said Corsi. “The air rises when it is heated, and then cool air comes in.”

He said private “pods” or “domes” can be pretty safe if properly ventilated and cleaned between guests. This also assumes that everyone who eats in the structure lives together, so that they have already been exposed to each other’s germs.

But Corsi said he still doesn’t dine in any of the many new outdoor dining creations – “although I know they have a much lower risk” of spreading Covid-19 than most indoor alternatives.

This story comes from NPR’s partnership with Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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