A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jun 19, 2020

Is Outdoor Dining Really Restaurants' Salvation? The Design and Health Complexities

As the weather gets warmer in the northern hemisphere, outdoor restaurant dining is being touted as a solution to the industry's extinction - and to consumers' pent-up frustration with staying at home.

But just last week, as 16 young women who gathered for a birthday celebration at an outdoor spot all contracted the virus, and as restauranteurs run the numbers, outdoor dining looks increasingly like a stopgap, not a solution. JL

Adam Rogers reports in Wired:

Outdoor seating is as much about business as it is about pathogenesis. The constraints of street layouts, abiding by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and owners’ worries about patrons who may still want to drive (and park) on the roads that would get converted to dining space have made opening outside almost as complicated as staying open inside. (And) few cities have year-round pleasant weather, whether because of heat, humidity, cold, or rain. "On the typical dining model, I have not seen where outdoor seating would make up for the amount of lost indoor seating due to distancing.”
ARCHITECTS MARITES ABUEG and her husband Keith Morris have designed 50 restaurants in the Bay Area over the past two decades. Maybe more—Abueg says she has lost count. So when just about all of those restaurants had to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she wanted to help. The Berkeley, California-based team offered five hours of pro bono work to each of their clients, trying to figure out if moving the furniture, putting up plexiglass barriers between tables, or setting up a delivery window would let a restaurant keep a little income flowing despite social distancing, mask wearing, and restrictions on indoor mass gatherings. “I looked at so many different diagrams all around the country, and a lot of them focused on suburban locations with a big parking lot,” Abueg says. Those kinds of eateries could move some kitchen and serving functions close to the front door and push tables outside. Most of the Bay Area spaces Abueg knew best could not.

But then, city officials across the country started announcing that they’d allow restaurants some leeway for outdoor dining—maybe they’d close streets to automotive traffic, or fast-track “parklets” in former streetside parking spaces. Abueg, Morris, and their partners at Studio KDA fielded a request from a Berkeley city councilwoman who’d been one of the first to pitch outdoor dining in the city. (Yes, it’s just as chilly and foggy as San Francisco.) Might Abueg be able to come up with some drawings to show what streets in the city would look like full of cheery tables and decorations? How would it all actually work?
It’s pretty hard, actually. Cities around the US have started putting restaurants into plein air for the summer. Boston opened outdoor dining in the famed North End on June 11; San Francisco published formal guidance on what was allowed that same day, and restaurants opened their patios June 12. New York will likely do the same by the end of the month, and people are already crowding the sidewalks and streets in front of restaurants in anticipation. But the constraints of street layouts, abiding by the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires ramps and wide enough spaces for people using mobility aids), and owners’ worries about patrons who may still want to drive (and park) on the roads that would get converted to dining space have made opening outside almost as complicated as staying open inside.
Outdoor dining is supposed to solve two problems. The first is that, while scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms of how Covid-19 moves from person to person, they’re pretty sure that it takes some combination of three routes: large droplets from coughing and sneezing, surfaces like door handles (or things like menus and cutlery), and small aerosolized “expiratory” particles that come from talking or even breathing. Most epidemiologists and public health experts agree that the risk of airborne transmission is much smaller outdoors, where fresh air blows away particles and lessens people’s exposure to them.
But outdoor seating is as much about business as it is about pathogenesis. Since so many of the outbreaks of Covid-19 have been in enclosed spaces crowded with people, the rules for reopening often require restaurants to cut the number of people who can be in the dining room—sometimes by more than half. That’s bad, because restaurants already operate on the thinnest of margins, packing in as many people as possible while still allowing cooking and serving to happen, and ideally not compromising the ambience. If a restaurant owner can add seats outdoors, maybe they can stay solvent. “In a high-rent area like San Francisco, it all is based on how many people you can serve and how many tables you can get in a space,” says Seth Boor, a Bay Area architect specializing in restaurants. “You just can’t make your numbers work at a 30 percent occupancy.”
In mid-May, Boor and Charles Hemminger, another architect with a restaurant-heavy practice, put together some designs to see if they could get enough socially distanced seats into a dining room to stay in business. San Francisco hadn’t yet issued its specific guidance for how restaurants could open, but the architects had the gist. They turned bars into prep stations, because they couldn’t figure out how to give people bending an elbow enough elbow room. They moved tables farther apart, thought about barriers, and took over patio and parking spaces where the restaurants had them.
They learned a few things. Risk of infection is a combination of how much exposure someone gets and how long they get it. And while customers might spend an hour or two in a restaurant, staff are there all night. “Patron-to-patron infection is a thing we’re worried about, but a bigger risk is patron-to-staff,” Boor says. “Those are the people you’re concerned with protecting. If they get sick, the whole operation goes down.”
Without significant changes to how much street space a restaurant is allowed to take up, Boor and Hemminger couldn’t really make outdoor dining plausible. “In a restaurant operating on the typical dining model of table service, I have not yet seen a case where outdoor seating would make up for the amount of lost indoor seating due to distancing,” Boor says. “Even the ones that come close require some pretty big assumptions about making that outdoor seating usable, like building something like wind screens and heating elements.” Few cities in the US have year-round pleasant weather in the evenings, whether that’s because of heat, humidity, cold, or rain. So restaurants trying to expand their borders are going to have to build some kind of nimbus of infrastructure to minimize the picnic-in-the-rain vibe. Of course, the more enclosed an outdoor space is, the more it is like an indoor space—with all the concomitant risks.
Many restaurant owners are hoping that cities will give them more space by taking it away from cars. That would include “parklets” that replace streetside parking. (These require strong barriers around their perimeter and a floor built level with the sidewalk, because streets often slope downward toward curbs to redirect rainwater and debris into gutters). And then you have to figure out how to actually build the things. Abueg says San Francisco’s rules only let a parklet extend 6 feet into the street; Berkeley seems likely to ask for barriers 2 feet thick. That only leaves 4 feet of space for tables.
All of this suggests that the best plan might be to forget about piecemeal parklets and just close streets altogether. Pedestrian-only plazas are common in many other parts of the world, but less so in car-happy America. The mayor and city council of Berkeley initially promised a huge number of street closures to accommodate outdoor dining, but the drawings Abueg and Morris came up with depict a much reduced and more realistic vision—short stretches of converted street, with maybe a block here and there fully closed to automobile traffic. They even encountered resistance to the idea of closing a particularly obvious candidate, Center Street, which extends west from the UC Berkeley campus into the city’s downtown. Center is lined with restaurants that run the gamut of cuisines and price points; it has a museum at one corner (with a skyscraping hotel under construction). The stretch is a block from a subway station, and the area is full of students. Seems perfect, right?
But Abueg says she got pushback from a landlord there, just as she did at another Berkeley retail street also identified as a candidate for closure. Restaurant owners are clamoring for expanded dining, but sometimes the people who own their buildings are just used to the idea of customers arriving in cars. And some of the restaurants have come to depend on pick-up and delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats, with drivers who want to pull up out front. And many of San Francisco’s and Berkeley’s restaurant districts also have high populations of unhoused people who live and sleep on public sidewalks. Restaurants have never had to take responsibility for those spaces. “In places like that, where the open seating will be shared by multiple restaurateurs, who will be responsible for the clean-up or for unhoused folks?” she asks. “So that got complicated.”
Protecting the staff will still be a challenge, even if everyone is eating outside. Abueg’s sketches anticipate that there will be no table service; people will order from windows at the restaurants and carry their orders to tables, like at a mall food court. “That’s an assumption we made with the concept, that the fewer touchpoints the better, instead of a server going back and forth,” Abueg says. “You clean up after yourself, and it would also require that everybody would have an app on their smartphone to see a menu and order, so you’re not standing queued up together.”
Yet even if the diners are mostly outside, restaurants still need kitchen workers and other staff. And nobody’s really sure how to make the inside of the building safe for them. Aerosol research just hasn’t focused on infectious disease. “Prior work was probably focused, rightly so, on the fume hood, the kitchen hood,” says William Ristenpart, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Davis who studies aerosols. That is, ventilation aimed at getting aerosolized grease, heat, and smoke from the stove and ovens up and out. “You didn’t want smoke going out into the room, or kitchen workers breathing smoke all day. But now that every customer who walks in is a potential source of expiratory aerosols that could be infectious, that changes things dramatically.”
One approach might be to bring more fresh air into the kitchen and dining room. Restaurants tend not to have lots of windows and doors into the kitchen, unless it’s an “open kitchen” meant for diners to look into. Another option is an air-conditioning system that filters the air, though that costs money if outside air needs to be heated or cooled—and takes even more power if the holes in the filters are smaller. Newer research suggests that the ultrafine HEPA filters used in, say, health care settings probably aren’t necessary; filters a few grades shy, like a MERV-13, could do most of the necessary work without overtaxing a restaurant’s HVAC system or its electricity bill. Probably. “The problem with this disease is that we don’t really know what the infectious dose is. You’ve got infected people putting out an aerosol that will have some virus in it, and that can vary quite a bit. We know there are people who for some reason shed a lot more virus than others,” says William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineer at Penn State who chairs the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. “So we don’t really have a way to calculate how much ventilation we should have.”
One of the most famous cases of indoor transmission of Covid-19 took place in a restaurant, in fact—in Guangzhou, China. People seated between an air conditioner and an exhaust fan got sick, but other people seated nearby—and the waitperson—did not. But multiple studies and analyses disagree about the role that air-conditioning played. Did it spread the virus, or was the problem a lack of fresh air piped in? Was the mode of transmission large particles or aerosols?
The problems of how air and virus mix in a ventilated but enclosed space remain unsolved, as do the problems of keeping a restaurant open, no matter where the diners are sitting. “What I love about designing restaurants is the sense of community,” Abueg says. “That’s what I miss, and that’s the piece that just saddens me about all of this. If we permanently turn into some takeout model and reduce contact, all of the fun of restaurants has just been washed away.”

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