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Should I eat in an igloo? How to navigate restaurants' outside dining this winter
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From single-table igloos to communal tents, restaurants are counting on an array of outdoor structures to keep customers coming through the winter as the coronavirus pandemic continues. But are these enclosures safe from Covid-19 infection? We asked public-health experts.
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Q: Is it safer to eat in a tent than a dining room?
A. It depends. A fully enclosed tent isn't much different than a room indoors. The key to preventing the spread of Covid-19, medical experts say, is a lot of air flow to avoid a buildup of droplets that carry the virus. Some local jurisdictions require that outdoor tents have at least two open sides. While that could make for a cold meal this winter in places like Chicago, it allows a level of air flow that epidemiologists say can ward off infection.
Windows in a tent aren't enough, said Lisa Brosseau, retired professor at the University of Illinois and an expert on respiratory protection and infectious disease. "You need to cause movement in and out of a space using something mechanical or some kind of air-movement device," she said. "Unless it is a windy day."
Medical experts say longer exposure to more of the new coronavirus is more likely to result in a person contracting Covid-19. But it is unclear what the threshold is for infection to take hold, said Richard Corsi, an air-quality expert at Portland State University.
By layering protective measures including masks, improved air flow and physical distancing, restaurants can limit a diner's potential exposure to Covid-19 by up to 95%, he said. Yet, Dr. Corsi, cautioned, restaurants and bars do present an elevated risk, even outdoors, because the piece of the puzzle that matters most — having everyone wear masks — isn't possible while eating and drinking.
A recent study in the U.K. funded by Parkrun, an organization that hosts 5K runs, reviewed 25,000 cases of Covid-19 infection and found very low risk of outdoor transmission of the virus. The study hasn't been peer-reviewed.