Patio Dining 101: Health Experts Weigh In On How To Eat Out Safely

From appetizers to rules about the bathroom, here are six tips for how to eat out during Phase 3.

Patio dining in Phase 3, Lakeview
Monica Eng / WBEZ
Patio dining in Phase 3, Lakeview
Monica Eng / WBEZ

Patio Dining 101: Health Experts Weigh In On How To Eat Out Safely

From appetizers to rules about the bathroom, here are six tips for how to eat out during Phase 3.

Chicagoans love their restaurants.

So it’s no surprise that they flooded many outdoor dining patios last week as the city entered Phase 3 of reopening.

But one Curious Citizen was a little alarmed that after months of social distancing, the city would now allow up to six people (not necessarily from the same household) to dine together — in public and without masks. Chicago’s official Phase 3 rules state: “When meeting with others, physically distance and wear a face covering.”

So how are we supposed to make sense of this?

Well, the initial reopening rules did not include any restaurant dining in Phase 3. That policy change happened after intense pressure from the restaurant industry and consumers who wanted to restart dining in some form. And some public health officials we spoke to were not crazy about relaxing the rules around outdoor dining.

Just because the rules allow patio dining, “that doesn’t mean that you can go and there’s absolutely no risk,” said Dr. Jennifer Layden, Chicago’s chief medical officer.

After all, Illinois saw more than 6,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 400 deaths over the last week. But Dr. Layden and other health experts understand that many will continue to flock to these outdoor patios — mostly located on the North Side. Plus, many more are expected to open in coming weeks as city officials review new applications. So we asked Dr. Layden and University of Chicago Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control Dr. Emily Landon to help us develop tips on how to dine outside more safely.

Tip 1: Think carefully about whom you dine with

Dine with the trusted members of your household or extended quarantine family, who ideally all practice safe social distancing in their daily lives. If you do choose to dine with someone outside your quarantine bubble, know that “you are taking on the risk of all the people that person has been exposed to,” Landon said. “And that’s how the virus spreads through our communities.”

Tip 2: Choose your restaurant carefully

Chief Medical Officer Layden advises skipping those jam-packed patios you might have seen on social media recently, and choosing restaurants that are taking the city’s social distancing rules seriously. “You want a place that has tables spaced out at least six feet and ample room to walk to and from the restroom,” she says. And speaking of the restroom, if your restaurant’s looks fairly small and crowded, you might want to hold on until you get home. Social distancing from complete strangers can be very hard in small public bathrooms.

And if you see restaurants violating city rules, Layden says you can report them to 311.

Tip 3: Phase 3 dining is for young healthy people

Landon notes, “If you’re older or have other underlying medical problems, you really need to read the fine print, which means it’s probably not appropriate for you.” She adds that it’s also not a good idea for people who live with someone in a high-risk group because they could inadvertently bring the infection home to others.

Tip 4: Avoid sharing condiments, appetizers or really anything at the table

But if someone insists on sharing a dish, then at least “do it in a way that, when it got to the table, it would be split and there would be no sharing of the plate or the utensils,” Layden says.

Tip 5: The more outside the better

“You have better ventilation outdoors,” Landon says, “and there’s clear evidence that there’s less transmission when people are outside rather than inside.” So if it’s a choice between one of those tables near a big open window (which are allowed under city rules) versus outside, choose the outside table.

Tip 6: Get used to these rules and follow them

Landon says there are still a lot of unknowns around the virus. “The reopening process is nothing short of an experiment to see if we can handle it as a community,” she says. “We don’t know how this virus is going to behave exactly. We can do a lot of math but that’s different than human behavior.”

So, while taking so many new precautions may feel inconvenient, Layden says we’d might as well get used to it.

“This,” she says, “is our new normal until people are vaccinated or protected.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. You can contact her at meng@wbez.org.