- The National Restaurant Association's recently released 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report shows that 62% of fine dining and 56% of casual dining operators have dedicated more resources to developing and expanding outdoor dining since the start of the pandemic.
- More than four in 10 full-service operators took advantage of city programs that allow restaurants to expand operations onto sidewalks, streets or parking lots.
- Outdoor dining's lifeline is limited, however. Most diners said the lowest temperature they will tolerate to eat outside, on average, is 60.5 degrees, according to the report.
Despite diner concerns over chilly weather, 70% report they would likely take a table outside in a temperature-controlled, ventilated tent if social-distancing guidelines are followed, according to NRA's report. Eighty-five percent of consumers planning to dine on-premise in the coming months said they would be willing to take such a table.
These outdoor structures pose a financial challenge for already cash-strapped restaurants, however. Bloomberg reports that outdoor dining enclosures can cost between $1,500 to $5,000 each and that’s not including heaters or additional fees, like permits for outdoor services.
A number of municipalities, like Chicago, Washington, D.C., Fairfax, Virginia and Iowa City, Iowa, have created programs to help local restaurants fund winterization costs. And even companies like Grubhub and DoorDash have launched winterization grants for restaurants.
Still, questions remain about whether enclosed outdoor dining areas are any safer than traditional dining rooms at mitigating COVID-19 spread.
Richard Corsi, an air quality expert from Portland State University, told NPR that there is a "wide spectrum" of safety as it applies to outdoor seating and the worst is a fully enclosed structure. Yale professor Gregg Gonsalves told Today that if a structure has four walls and a roof, "it is called an indoor enclosure outside." A CDC report found that dining at restaurants increases the risk of COVID-19 exposure more than other activities, but the agency didn't say if study participants ate inside dining rooms or at outdoor patios. The CDC also hasn't distinguished the levels of risk present for indoor dining versus outdoor dining, which could pose different degrees of exposure.
That said, outdoor dining has proved to be a major boon to a number of restaurants, and diners expect outdoor dining options to become standard offerings at eateries this year. Chicago expanded its outdoor dining program in the summer after experiencing success from a pilot in three city corridors. Those pilots helped more than 250 restaurants and bars sustain their business, according to the city, and some have called to make the program permanent.
New York's outdoor dining model, which closed off traffic to allow dining in the street, saved nearly 100,000 jobs, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. New York City has already announced plans to bring back outdoor dining in June, and Rochester, New York and Boston will do so in the spring.