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Restaurants turn to tents and heaters to keep diners outdoors in winter. Is it safe?

Restaurants turn to tents and heaters to keep diners outdoors in winter. Is it safe?

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RALEIGH — The Haymaker built its annual holiday bar at the end of Raleigh's Fayetteville Street, turning a large white tent into a winter wonderland filled with nutcrackers, Christmas trees, strings of twinkling lights and garland.

But earlier this week, the downtown Raleigh winds were too strong for the bar to open, in yet another chapter of what it means to run a bar or restaurant in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outdoor dining has sustained local restaurants through the summer and fall, as diners largely considered eating outside less risky than eating indoors.

Even before the chill in the air turned to a frost, Triangle restaurants and bars started to batten down the hatches. They bought up electric and propane heaters, and they built tents and awnings with tarps and vinyl. Sometimes the line between patios and dining rooms started to blur.

In other cities, winterizing patios went even further, as the New York Times reported restaurants there installed chandeliers and wooden beams and Plexiglas windows.

On Nov. 23, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines in response to the trend of tents and outdoor enclosures. For any outdoor dining area with some kind of enclosure, three sides must be at least 50% open, or have fans forcing the circulation of air.

For igloo-style dining bubbles, like those at Durham's Unscripted Hotel and Durty Bull Brewing Co., they must be cleaned and left empty between uses and are discouraged for groups that don't live together.

By late last month, North Raleigh bar and restaurant Piper's Tavern had already installed four large heat strips, added lights and enclosed the patio tents. In all, co-owner Dan Hurley said the restaurant spent about $10,000 winterizing the patio.

With the sides enclosed, Hurley said a few customers complained it was too closed-in, then last week the state issued new rules for outdoor dining.

"I don't want to have the indoors outside, that defeats the purpose," Hurley said. "We removed 50% of each wall. That gets rid of my heat. ... I've had two empty decks since the middle of last week."

Is it safe?

What concerns public health officials about closed off tents is the lack of airflow.

Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, the director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center, said there's a range of safety for any activity beyond staying home. The risk factors, she said, include the number of people in an area, the time spent, how much distance there is from others and whether one is inside or outside. Since the beginning of the pandemic, outdoor dining was preferred by public health officials, because air moved continuously.

"If it has four walls and only a small opening, you're not getting the benefit of being outdoors," Sickbert-Bennett said.

Sickbert-Bennett said outdoor dining tents could be safe if well-vented and distance kept between tables. She pointed to dining with people one doesn't live with as a concerning spreader of the virus.

"Proximity likely matters; that's the rationale for having reduced capacity in restaurants," Sickbert-Bennett said. "That's the potential benefit of these tents. You can really carve out your space for your bubble (of family or friends). But if you're going to meet up with people from new bubbles, it creates an encapsulated space with no airflow, there's not a lot of space to be distant from them."

At this moment in early December, months into the pandemic, Sickbert-Bennett said COVID-19 appears to be more widespread than ever. In the early outbreaks in the spring and summer, she noted, cases could be connected to nursing homes or factories, but now appear to be less tied to specific places.

"Now it seems to be coming from everywhere," Sickbert-Bennett said. "It's prevalent in the general community."

Battling the wind

In the winter, the same thing that makes outdoors safer, that free flow of air, will make diners cold.

Last year, when Sara Abernethy and Chris Borreson bought the former Boylan Bridge Brewpub and turned it into Wye Hill Kitchen, they knew the famed view of the Raleigh skyline was the main draw. The restaurant's large patio was part of its identity, but through the summer became its lifeline.

"It was extremely, extremely important for us," Abernethy said. "We were focusing on this back in the summer, as early as May and June, wondering, what are we going to do come winter?"

Wye Hill enclosed three sides of its patio with clear vinyl to block the wind, but left the cityscape side open. The restaurant installed heaters and is selling blankets at cost, with plans to add scarves and knit caps.

"Everybody's doing what they have to do to survive," Borreson said. "We wanted that view available at all times. Looking through a piece of plastic is not attractive."

Raleigh restaurant Hummingbird still hasn't opened its tiny indoor dining room or its much larger events space next door. Owner Coleen Speaks said she isn't comfortable eating indoors and has relied on her patio for months.

For the winter, she closed in two sides, but left open areas at the end of the L-shaped patio and bought eight heaters. She's also adding faux fur blankets to drape on chairs to drum up a bit more heat.

"I still think we need air circulation; safety is in the forefront of my mind," Speaks said. "It wasn't cheap but I felt like I didn't have an option."

Making it to 2021

This week is the 20th anniversary of Piper's Tavern. Hurley said they planned to make it a year-long celebration, but that 2020 has been far from a party.

Now with winter here, diners who felt comfortable eating outdoors will either step into dining rooms for the first time, or stay away until warmer days.

Piper's has already seen a 20% drop in the past two weeks, Hurley said, possibly tied to rising case counts of the virus, warnings from Gov. Roy Cooper against gatherings, or a preview of the months to come.

Hurley said he could count on one hand the number of times the Piper's dining room met its 50% capacity.

"We're just hoping to make it to 21," Hurley said.

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