How the Restaurant Industry will Adapt to Comply with COVID-19 Regulations this Winter Season

Alexandria Nunn
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

When Governors around the United States initially provided COVID-19 regulations to restaurants and other businesses, it was relatively warm outside. Outdoor dining was easily accessible throughout the summer and outdoor dining continues to be especially crucial in order to accommodate for social distancing. In Chicago, Illinois, the city has closed off streets in order for restaurants to expand tables into the road to make room for more customers while continuing to abide by health and safety regulations. However, with the cold winter weather fast approaching, restaurants will be forced to adapt in order to stay in business. As of mid-September, only six months into the pandemic, 100,000 restaurants have closed on a permanent or long-term basis in the United States.

What makes restaurants more susceptible than other industries to financial difficulties during the pandemic?

One of the main reasons why restaurants are being hit especially hard during the pandemic is because restaurants play a significant role in the spread of COVID-19. This heightened risk is a natural consequence of the environment of a restaurant. For instance, customers are not wearing a mask at all times in order to be able to eat and drink. Further, the consumption of alcoholic beverages causes less risk-conscious behavior. A Virginia Tech epidemiologist stated that, “In work and office settings, it can be easier to socially distance, control who is present and wear masks continuously, plus people aren’t normally drinking.”

Further, being unable to access outdoor dining could potentially spread the disease more in restaurants. A limited study by Chinese researchers found that the social nature of dining out possibly increases the risk of contamination due to the ventilation systems of indoor dining facilities. These ventilation systems create patterns of airflow that keep viruses in the air for a longer period of time. This result makes researchers fear that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommendation of keeping tables six feet apart is not sufficient to keep restaurant customers safe.

What are the current COVID-19 regulations for restaurants?

Current COVID-19 regulations include requiring employees to wear face mask coverings and to require restaurant customers to wear their masks at all times except when seated. Further regulations include changing the layout of the restaurant to ensure that customers are seated at tables that are placed at least six feet apart. The CDC also requires restaurants to “prioritize outdoor seating as much as possible.”

In what ways can restaurants continue to accommodate outdoor seating in the winter while following COVID-19 prevention regulations?

With many customers still not fully comfortable with the idea of indoor dining, restaurants are forced to think outside of the box when it comes to winter outdoor dining this season. The President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, Sam Toia, urged those in the industry to find productive ways to overcome this problem. In furtherance of this, the city of Chicago held a Winter Dining Design Challenge that awarded five thousand dollars to three winners who submitted creative solutions for outdoor dining in the winter season. A statement from the city said that these three designs “capture[d] the spirit of Chicago, while providing feasible and safe options for Chicagoans to enjoy dining out as temperatures drop.”

The first winner of the competition set out to utilize parking spaces where restaurants could place small adjoining cabin-like buildings that fit within the standard parking space for customers to dine in. The second winner’s design implements heated block structures that can be built in different arrangements and stacked differently depending on how many customers the block arrangement is holding. The design also allows restaurants to paint the blocks to reflect the theme of that particular restaurant the structure is representing. The third winner of the contest utilized a common Japanese tradition of using heated tables. The design of the table includes a heater underneath it with a blanket that is designed to capture heat. This third design allows restaurants to utilize the spaces that they already have such as their outdoor decks, rooftops and patios without having to spread into the streets for more space.

Other innovate ideas have been set forth for restaurants to utilize during the colder months of the year such as “replacing metal outdoor furniture with tables and chairs made from materials that feel warmer to the touch, adding greenery and shrubbery to not only help provide physical distance between tables but to also serve as a shield from strong bursts of wind and offering blankets that are laundered between each use.”

These new ideas and innovations allow a hopeful outlook for those restaurants facing the dilemma of providing outdoor dining options in the colder seasons of winter. Though restaurants around the United States have been struggling through the pandemic, the industry is learning to adapt.