As the temperatures have crept upward, some Charlotte residents have ventured out of their homes onto restaurant patios and picnic benches at breweries.
While health experts consider transmission of COVID-19 in outdoor spaces to be less likely than in indoor spaces, they also advise people avoid large crowds and always observe social distancing.
In other words, just because you are outside does not mean you cannot catch the virus.
In one notable example, five cases of coronavirus were linked to Mecktoberfest, an outdoor Charlotte party held at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery last September. Video showed dozens of unmasked people standing or sitting under umbrellas in the outdoor space. Later, after intense fallout, OMB’s owner said it was a mistake not to have more crowd control.
Countless other businesses, churches and hang-outs in Charlotte have faced similar wrath for hosting large crowds both inside and outdoors during the pandemic.
With sun and warmer weather ahead, how do you stay safe when dining outdoors? What should you look for when deciding on a place for drinks or brunch? We’ve got answers.
What the CDC says
The Center for Disease Control has said the safest way to support restaurants during the pandemic is to get food from delivery or take-out and then eat at home with people who live with you. In Charlotte, many places offer to-go cocktails and curbside pickup for beer.
The CDC considers indoors dining with reduced capacity and tables at least six feet apart more risky than getting than getting food to go.
Similarly, outdoor dining is not risk-free if tables are not adequately spaced. According to the CDC, the virus can infect people more than six feet away through airborne transmission.
The highest risk comes from indoor dining without reduced capacity or social distancing, which is currently not permitted in North Carolina.
Whether you eat and drink inside or sit on a patio, the safest way is to stick only with people in your household.
Wear a mask ... seriously
Both workers and customers should be wearing masks, says Mohammad Jenatian, president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance.
It does not matter if you have a cup of coffee or your food in front of you, he said. Unless someone is actively drinking or eating, they should be wearing a mask to reduce risks, he said. That’s part of the governor’s executive order from November.
Businesses in Charlotte with the strictest enforcement of COVID-19 safety rules also make sure customers put on a mask while walking from a table to bathroom or from their table to a counter to order.
At a brewery or on a patio, beware of others who migrate from their seat or area, or patrons who stand near their table, reducing the distance between their party and yours. Some venues may tell customers they can only be near the people they came with and will intervene if there’s mingling between parties.
The rules apply even if you have already been vaccinated or had the virus, Jenatian said. Everyone should be wearing a mask especially if they are moving around and pass other people, he said.
Check for ventilation and spacing
One reason experts have advised diners to sit outside is because of better airflow and reduced risk of airborne transmission. In North Carolina, breweries and restaurants are allowed some indoor seating. Starting Feb. 26, bars may reopen indoor areas, operating “at 30% capacity or 250 people, whichever is less,” the Observer reported Wednesday.
However, the weather is not always predictable and some businesses have used awnings or pergolas to ways to shield customers from rain. The guideline for navigating these is to make sure there is adequate airflow.
When it comes to tents, diners should look for open doors or rolled up sides and avoid restaurants and bars when they’re busy, the CDC advises.
A fully-sealed tent is just another indoor space, Jenatian said, and possibly even worse than inside the building which has better circulation due to air filters and internal heating and cooling units.
In short: A tent may keep you dry or warm. But you’re better off waiting for a better-weather day and enjoying an open-air patio.
Jenatian said that six feet should be considered a minimum when looking to see how spaced apart tables are. Most restaurant and bar-goers tend to be most comfortable when there is plenty of space, he said.
Reduce personal contact
The pandemic has hurried the adoption of technologies like touch-less payment and online ordering. Some restaurants or breweries have swapped their menus with QR codes that people can scan and look up with their cellphones.
The CDC also recommends contact-less ordering and pick-up and advises people to be vigilant for crowded waiting or ordering areas. These can be avoided with buzzers or apps that inform when your order is ready.
These technologies are good for businesses too since they increase efficiency, Jenatian said.
Ask questions, plan ahead
People should feel as comfortable asking about coronavirus precautions as they do calling to make a reservation, Jenatian said. Has the business had a deep clean? Are temperature checks required? Are employees willing to correct someone else’s mask use?
Look at reviews on Yelp, Facebook and other platforms to see what past customers say about a restaurant or business’ activity during COVID-19.
In order to eliminate the virus, he said everyone must do their part. He said he’s heard too many managers and owners excuse themselves by saying they cannot control their customers.
“Guess what? If it’s your bar or your restaurant, don’t tell me that you cannot enforce your rules and regulations. You can,” Jenatian said.