Is it safe to dine on a patio during COVID-19?

Is it safe to dine on a patio during COVID-19?
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TORONTO -- As warmer temperatures give way to summer, many Canadians are eager to get outside and enjoy a meal with friends at a local patio.

But, as restaurants across the country adjust to the realities of operating during a pandemic, patio-goers will be greeted with an entirely different experience -- one that involves reduced service, physical distancing, and questions about the logistics of enjoying a cold pint while wearing a face mask.

But is it safe to do so?

Jeffrey Farber, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Guelph, says while there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of transmitting the virus in an outdoor patio setting, it may be safer than sitting down for a meal inside a restaurant.

“In indoor spaces, there is much more opportunity [for transmission] … having that closed space where the virus can easily transmit between people,” Farber told by phone Saturday.

“Outside, let’s say if someone coughs, you’d have very good air flow, so the possibility for transmission from one person to the next would be minimal.”

Farber points to a study by Chinese researchers which looked at a case of transmission at a restaurant in Guangzhou, China in January.

An asymptomatic diner seated in the middle of the restaurant appeared to spread the virus to nine other people in the space. Though the study had several limitations, researchers suggested that the restaurants air conditioner spread the virus particles around the dining room.

The study led several public health authorities, including Ontario Public Health , to investigate the role airflow plays in transmission of the disease, leading to recommendations of physical distancing of dining tables and improved ventilation of indoor spaces.

But Farber says the summer season highlights the importance of restaurants moving their services outside during the pandemic.

Some provinces, including Alberta, have already allowed restaurants to open at 50 per cent capacity and expand their patios, and similar recommendations are expected for restaurants in other provinces.

“I do think it’s safe, if it’s done properly,” said Farber, noting there are many adjustments restaurants and patrons will have to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Farber says patio-goers can expect to see a number of changes, including a limited number of tables, a reduction in service, and mandatory reservations to prevent lineups from occurring outside of venues.

“Servers may spend less time at the tables,” he explained, noting that employees will have been trained to practice physical distancing from patrons.

Awnings and canopies may even have to be altered or removed in order to make sure there is proper ventilation and air flow on the patio, Farber suggests.

You can also expect to see the same kind of physical distancing measures in patio seating arrangements, which inevitably leads to reduced seating. This, Farber explains, presents a problem for business owners who already pay high fees to cities and town to operate their patios.

“Until we have some type of effective prevention or vaccine, this is going to become the ‘new normal,’” he said.

“The restaurants need a break on some of these fees in order to create more outdoor seating.”

Cities in Alberta, whose patios are open for business, have already begun work to simplify the patio application and approval process for restaurant owners. In Edmonton, the city has introduced new zoning exemptions which will allow restaurants to build a patio on a sidewalk, or in a parking lot.

Bathroom runs will also present new issues.

“[Restaurants] need to have a system where they don’t have an excess amount of people congregating in the washrooms,” Farber explained.

“Having good signage in the restaurants just to keep reminding people of what they should be doing in terms of physical distancing when entering the restaurant will be important.”


When it comes to the decision to eat out during COVID-19, Farber says diners should take the same considerations they would when socializing generally: don’t go out if you feel ill, practice physical distancing, and wash your hands frequently.

“Make sure that you’re going to a restaurant that is taking this seriously. You don’t want to go to a place where you see no effort to conform to all of the guidance that is being given out by public health authorities,” Farber said, adding “make sure you are comfortable.”

Where it may get tricky is the decision to wear a mask.

“We’ve heard a lot about wearing masks and I really do think it is a good approach. We know there are people with no symptoms at all who can shed the virus and spread it to other people,” Farber said.

“But it’s going to be a learning curve, because obviously, you can’t eat with your mask on.”

Farber suggests bringing a plastic bag with you to the restaurant so you can place your mask safely inside when eating or drinking.

Be sure to, removing it by the ear loops and folding it in half so the side that touches your mouth is on the inside. Ideally, you should wash your hands thoroughly after taking off your mask.​ 
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