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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Restaurants are setting up tents and temporary structures to extend outdoor dining during the winter. But they come with their own hazards, and in some cases, could be riskier than eating indoors.

Outdoor dining tent
Outdoor dining tents in New York City in October.

  • Bars and restaurants have set up tents and other temporary structures to prolong outdoor dining as temperatures drop in many parts of the US. 
  • But Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider that enclosed outdoor spaces could be risky for customers. 
  • “When you’re making those outdoor spaces look a lot more like indoor spaces — so if they have, all of a sudden, three-and-a-half walls, or the air flow’s not great, or there’s lots of people still at a table, then you kind of get rid of all of the potential benefits of outside,” Meyer said.
  • Several cities and states have put rules in place for outdoor structures, mandating that 50% of the sides open and banning totally enclosed structures. In places like New York City, enclosed tents must be treated like indoor spaces and limited to 25% capacity. 
  • Totally enclosed tents and temporary buildings might even be riskier than dining inside a restaurant since they lack built-in ventilation systems to increase airflow, Meyer said. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the temperature drops in many parts of the US, restaurants are coming up with creative solutions to allow for outdoor dining. But in some cases, these solutions may increase diners’ coronavirus risk. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, outdoor dining has allowed restaurants and bars to stay open while offering customers a way to continue eating, drinking, and socializing in a low-risk environment. Outdoor dining has become so popular and lucrative that it’s becoming a more permanent fixture everywhere from Milwaukee to Boston.

But in the winter months, restaurants will be hard-pressed to convince diners to sit outdoors, exposed to chilly temperatures, wind, and possibly even snow. 

Enter: tents, enclosed patios, and even curbside cabanas. 

City and state governments across the country seem somewhat split on what types of structures are safe. In Chicago, for example, the city mandates that temporary outdoor structures must have 50% of the sides open in order to ensure air flow. New York City has the same rule, but will allow fully enclosed structures – they’ll just be regulated like indoor dining and capped at 25% capacity. Cities in Connecticut and Colorado have similar mandates. 

State and local laws aside, however, infectious disease experts say this type of dining comes with clear risks that customers should take into account before dining in one of these structures. 

Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider last month that while she applauds businesses for thinking creatively about how to prolong outdoor dining, some are going too far and essentially creating an indoor space.

“When you’re making those outdoor spaces look a lot more like indoor spaces – so if they have, all of a sudden, three-and-a-half walls, or the air flow’s not great, or there’s lots of people still at a table, then you kind of get rid of all of the potential benefits of outside,” Meyer said.

Meyer said the two keys to safe outdoor dining are the ability to physically distance and airflow. But structures like four-sided tents lack air circulation that restaurants have – businesses aren’t installing ventilation systems in a temporary curbside hut, meaning dining in an enclosed space like that could be even riskier than sitting inside at a restaurant, Meyer said. 

“You don’t want air to essentially be stagnant,” Meyer said. “That’s especially true in the winter because when there’s less humidity in the air the droplets can actually disperse farther.” 

Meyer suggested bars and restaurants add a fan if they’re going to have an enclosed outdoor space, or just lift a tent flap or leave a window open – anything to keep air circulating throughout the structure. 

Beyond the inherent risks associated with little air flow and close proximity to other people, Meyer warned that outdoor dining structures may give people a false sense of security. Since they’re not technically inside the restaurant, diners may relax social distancing measures, move around without their masks on, or otherwise treat it as an outdoor space, even if, for all intents and purposes, it’s more like being indoors. 

In many parts of the country, especially in places that experience wintry weather like New York or Chicago, restaurants have set up igloos and greenhouses that allow customers to dine, essentially, in a bubble. While those individual tents carry the same risks – namely, no ventilation – Meyer said they’re a better solution as long as you only dine with people in your household. 

“Some virus particles can be aerosolized and kind of hang in the air, and they like to stick to surfaces like tables and chairs and potentially the inside of this bubble,” Meyer said. “There need to be precautions in place for a little bit of downtime between customers and good cleaning and disinfecting practices in between in order to make that safe.” 

social bubble dining
A social distancing bubble at Cafe Du Soleil in New York City on September 29, 2020.

The US faces a dire COVID situation nationwide

Regardless of the precautions restaurants are taking with tents, igloos, and huts, Meyer said it’s possible dining could be shut down again soon anyway as cases continue to rise.

Robert Mujica, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget director, said during a press conference on Wednesday that bars and restaurants are the fastest-growing source of COVID infections in the state now that it’s getting colder. Indoor dining is prohibited in parts of the state that have been deemed COVID “clusters,” and Cuomo has warned that indoor dining could be shut down in New York City by Monday. 

Other parts of the country are placing limits on restaurants as well. Both California and Michigan have shut down indoor dining, and Baltimore has closed all types of dining at restaurants, including outdoor service.

Last week, the CDC warned against spending time in “nonessential indoor spaces and crowded outdoor settings,” calling those spaces “a preventable risk to all participants.”

These measures amid a devastating COVID situation across the country. The US reported over 220,000 new COVID cases on Tuesday, and more than 104,000 people are currently hospitalized as a result of complications from COVID-19. The US has now seen more than 288,000 deaths since of the onset of the pandemic. It’s difficult to measure which part of the country is currently the hardest hit by the virus – as The New York Times notes, several parts of the country could be considered the biggest hot spot depending on how you measure it. 

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