7 tech tips for outdoor dining safely in the remaining months of the pandemic

Outdoor dining
You can use these tech tips to ensure your safety while outdoor dining.

  • Outdoor dining can have an extra layer of safety from standard COVID precautions with the assistance of several tech tools.
  • COVID exposure notifications, social distancing apps, and Google Maps can help keep you stick more closely to CDC guidelines about personal and social activities.
  • Restaurant apps like CareFull, QR codes, and contactless payment can help you stay alert and abiding by social distance guidelines.
  • Regardless of what tech you use, you should always follow established COVID-19 safety precautions when outdoor dining.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

As your list of vaccinated acquaintances grows, so, too, may the urge to eat with them.

Of course, outdoor dining has been an option for some during the pandemic, and it still is. But with warm weather around the corner and loosening COVID-19 restrictions, opportunities for al fresco dining might be more frequent and tempting. That’s why staying safe if you choose to dine outdoors (or order for pickup) is more important than ever.

Research published by the CDC has shown that opening restaurants to on-premises dining, including outdoor spaces, was linked to increased COVID-19 rates in the months following. Another investigation of 11 US healthcare facilities in 2020 found that COVID-19 positive adults were twice as likely as those who tested negative to have eaten at a restaurant in the two weeks before their illness cropped up.

Still, there are ways to stay safer when choosing outdoor dining.

Outdoor dining safety tips

Not dining out is the safest option of all, and sure enough, the CDC recommends avoiding events and gatherings altogether. But they also break down the safety of dining scenarios by varying degrees of risk.

Drive-thru, takeout, and delivery options are considered the lowest risk, while the highest risk goes to indoor dining on-premises with seating spaced less than six feet apart. Eating outdoors with tables spaced apart six feet falls somewhere in the middle.

While having food delivered to your home is safer than ordering for pickup or outdoor dining, if you opt to do outdoor dining or curbside pickup from a restaurant, here are some additional tools to help you stay safe.

Get COVID exposure notifications when outdoor dining

Covid exposure notifications
Use your smartphone to get COVID exposure notifications while you’re outdoor dining.

Several states have opted into partnerships with Apple and Google’s technology for COVID-19 contact tracing. Health authorities that use this application programming interface (API) have made their own Android apps, which you can find in the Google Play Store, if available in your area. Apple users have a more streamlined system thanks to the built-in COVID exposure notification tool for iOS devices.

If you download the app for your area or enable notifications on your iOS device, you must opt-in to the notification system. Once that’s done, your phone and the phones of others who have opted-in to the service communicate through Bluetooth using random, frequently changing IDs. The app continuously checks its list of IDs against the random IDs associated with positive COVID-19 cases.

When someone with an ID linked to a positive COVID-19 test is in your immediate area, you’ll be notified of your exposure with further guidance on how to stay safe. This is useful for knowing if you were exposed to someone with COVID-19 before making plans to eat out, as well as being alerted if you come into contact with someone during an outing.

Use social distance apps when waiting in a line for pickup or outdoor dining

Social Distancing
People in protective face masks social distancing while waiting in a line.

From the beginning of the pandemic, health authorities and experts have maintained that individuals not from the same household should remain six feet apart at all times. But what is six feet, anyway?

A handful of Android and iOS apps aim to help make that clearer, so while you’re waiting in line or even dining at a table, you know whether you’re keeping a safe distance – and others are keeping a safe distance from you. One such app for iOS users is Social Distance Training. Designed for students and teachers, this app can give a clearer picture of your proximity to someone, using a holographic person to create a virtual distance simulation. It won’t tell you in real-time how close you are to someone, but it does offer a sense of how far away six feet feels for when you are standing in a restaurant’s pickup line.

Android users may prefer to use Sodar by Google, which relies on WebXR on Chrome and your smartphone’s camera. Available only through Chrome on Android devices, this augmented reality tool creates a two-meter radius ring around you – using the recommended distance of at least six feet – to help you follow social distancing guidelines. Just go to the Sodar by Google website, use your phone to scan the QR code, and you’re ready to head out.

Find parks using Google Maps “Explore” to switch up your outdoor dining location

For those inclined to take “outdoor dining” literally, Google Maps is good for so many things – including finding a park to eat in safely once that pickup order is paid for.

If you’re in an unfamiliar place, Google Maps “Explore” feature can locate general categories of places nearby like “gas stations,” “post offices,” and yes, even “parks.” You can use it on the desktop site, or Android and iOS apps.

This feature isn’t available everywhere, but it can be a quick way to get out of a crowd for a quiet and socially distanced meal surrounded by nature. Here’s how to use it.

Use delivery apps and apps like CareFull

Carefull App 1
The CareFull app lets you sort restaurants by filter location and other filters, like outdoor dining availability.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Greater Boston or NYC area, the newer CareFull app – available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store – can help. Designed with COVID-safe eateries (and diners) in mind, CareFull lets you search for local establishments, see what safety precautions they’re taking, and read and leave safety reviews for any given restaurant. The user-friendly layout makes it easy to select a restaurant based on safety.

Carefull App 2
The CareFull App offers safety ratings for establishments you may visit.

If you don’t live in either of those two areas, consider ordering pick-up with a restaurant-friendly service like ChowNow. This platform doesn’t receive a commission on orders like other popular delivery apps, meaning more of your money goes directly to the local establishments you’re ordering from.

New Yorkers also have Spread, a newer commission-free food delivery service that saves for customers and restaurants. The app sends you texts with exclusive promotions from takeout and delivery restaurants in your neighborhood. You can then enter those promotions on the restaurant’s site – cutting out the extra service fees that come with delivery app alternatives.

Use QR codes to order while outdoor dining

Menu QR Codes
Women use a QR code to order lunch with their smart phone while outdoor dining.

Many might already be familiar with this kind of barcode, which a smartphone can scan for many purposes. Restaurants have put them into action on outdoor tables or in storefront windows for would-be diners to read menus – no contact with a physical menu passed through other’s hands needed. Some restaurants even allow for ordering right from the menu.

Newer models of Android and iPhone have QR scanners built into their camera apps. Here’s how to use it.

Choose contactless payment options while outdoor dining

Contactless Payment
A bar owner uses a contactless payment method to charge customer.

QR codes are handy, and contactless payment options with them are even handier. Some restaurants allow ordering and payment straight from the menu you’ve pulled up on your phone.

That includes credit cards like Apple Card or online payment systems like PayPal or Google Pay. Contactless payment minimizes the surfaces touched by a server handling a credit card or cash, keeping both parties safer. It’s also a precaution, like several of those listed, that you can verify ahead of time with a quick phone call.

Use UV light sanitizers to keep your outdoor dining flatware clean and avoid using plastics

Samsung UV C Phone Sanitizer
A Samsung UV Sterilizer can sanitize your phone, earbuds, glasses, and more.

If you want to cover all your bases in reducing risk while dining at a restaurant, you can take sanitization to the next level with a UV light sanitizer. It’s perfect for small items – cards, keys, sunglasses, even silverware – while you eat.

Enclosed, battery-operated UV light boxes meant for phones are generally the most effective and safe, with UV wands being less so.

How to scan QR codes with your Samsung Galaxy phone in 2 waysHow to order food from Google Maps for pickup or delivery, using a computer or mobile deviceHow to set up and use Apple Pay on your iPhone to make contactless payments at thousands of storesHow to set up and use Google Pay on your Android phone to make contactless payments at thousands of stores

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What is ChowNow? How the food-ordering service differs from its competition

Food delivery online
ChowNow charges restaurants a monthly fee without a commission on orders.

  • ChowNow is a food-ordering app and subscription service for restaurants that doesn’t receive a commission on orders like other popular delivery apps.
  • Restaurants that pay for the monthly service get the benefits of being on a delivery app, plus a dedicated marketing team to set up an app and website, among other features.
  • For customers, the ChowNow app is similar to ordering apps from services like UberEats or GrubHub.
  • Visit Business Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Food delivery apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash seem nearly ubiquitous in the restaurant industry – if you’re running a restaurant and you want people in the area to know about you, getting on at least one of these apps is essential for your exposure.

These apps, however, take a cut of what restaurants earn – even if you order pickup and not delivery. Most of them take 20% to 40% of each order, which is, in many cases, nearly the entire profit margin on the food they’re selling.

The people behind ChowNow saw this trend and worried that it would take down the small, local restaurant as we know it, and decided to do something about it. ChowNow is a service that sets up food delivery for restaurants on its own app (available on Android and iOS), like other food delivery service apps. However, the company doesn’t charge a percentage for it.

What to know about ChowNow

Unlike UberEats or DoorDash, ChowNow doesn’t stop after putting a restaurant on its app. It does more – it helps make it easy for a restaurant to have its own ordering app, and an easy-to-use order function on its website.

Instead of taking a percentage of each order, ChowNow structured its service as a paid monthly subscription – the base cost is $149 a month, with a one-time $399 setup fee per location, but these prices go down when a business signs a contract for a longer period. Its annual plan is $119 a month with a $199 initial setup fee, and the two-year annual plan is $99 a month, with the same discounted setup fee.

On top of helping a restaurant set up its own ordering app and website, ChowNow also offers a wide range of other services to customers, including comprehensive training, an iPad for order consolidation, an ongoing marketing strategy, and 24/7 support.

What is Chownow   1
A comprehensive overview of all the services that come with a ChowNow plan.

One thing to note about ChowNow is that it is not actually a delivery service. ChowNow does not employ its own delivery drivers – it is, more or less, a marketing team and middle man. Instead, the company gives restaurants the option to hire and use their own delivery drivers for orders that go through the site. 

If restaurants don’t want to hire delivery drivers, though, they’re not out of luck – ChowNow has partnerships with some of the delivery services they are competing with, including Postmates, DoorDash, UberEats, in different areas. ChowNow isn’t trying to drive these companies out of business – just reimagine how they function so the process works for everyone.

ChowNow can help customers, too

As a customer, using ChowNow doesn’t have to be that different than using other ordering apps. It works more or less the same, but when you use it instead of one of the other apps, you’re doing your part to help local restaurants keep more of what they earn.

When you download the ChowNow app, it looks a lot like any other ordering app you may be familiar with. You enter your location, and it shows you a list of available restaurants in your area, and you can tap on them to see their menu. From there, you just add items to your cart, check out, and wait. 

What is ChowNow 2
Despite ChowNow fees being different from other ordering apps, its interface is similar to the apps from other food-ordering services.

If that’s all you use ChowNow for, then you’re still helping your local small businesses – plus, you might be helping yourself out, too. Because of the high commissions on apps like GrubHub and Postmates, many restaurants increase their prices on the app in order to compensate for what would otherwise be a net loss. So when you use an app that charges restaurants a fee, you could end up paying more for your food than you need to. 

However, customers can also look at the ChowNow app as a map to new restaurants – ideally, they would try a restaurant once, and, if they decide they really like it, simply go and download that restaurant’s app, rather than adding it to a list of favorites. This puts customers in a position to get bonuses and deals that the company may be offering.

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