How safe are those outdoor dining igloos and tents when it comes to COVID-19 transmission?

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Saturday, November 14, 2020
How safe are outdoor dining igloos when it comes to COVID-19 spread?
As concerns remain about dining indoors and temperatures drop, outdoor dining structures are popping up everywhere. But what setup should you look for to dine safely and reduce your risk?

There's new information about the role restaurants could play in COVID-19 exposure.

A new study using cellphone technology from millions of Americans found restaurants are among likely hotspots for spread of the virus.

Good Morning America investigated how safe you are when dining -- even in an outdoor space -- and how the type of structure you choose to dine in could impact your level of exposure.

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As concerns remain about dining indoors and temperatures drop, outdoor dining structures are popping up everywhere. But what setup should you look for to dine safely and reduce your risk?

So how and why is outdoor dining safer than indoor dining?

"It has to do with ventilation," said Professor of Epidemiology at UCLA, Anne Rimoin. "The ability of this virus to be able to dissipate in the air."

So then what does that mean for dining tents?

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"Tents don't have ventilation the way an indoor restaurant would," Rimoin said. "So these outdoor settings are not actually outdoors."

GMA teamed up with Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr to show how the virus can travel from table to table depending on the type of dining structure you choose.

"So if someone is infected and they're sitting outdoors in one of these tents, when they're breathing and talking, they release viruses into the air and just like cigarette smoke, the air can easily flow in any direction because there are no walls," Marr said. "And once you start adding walls, you potentially block that wind. Once you add four walls, you kind of lose that benefit of being outdoors."

And while dining igloos do isolate you from other diners, there's a downside.

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"If someone's infected, there's really a high potential for virus to build up in the air and for everyone in that little bubble to be exposed," said Marr. "I feel like it's only prudent to go in there with people in your own household or people in your own pod."

Also, Marr cautions, make sure there's enough time between seatings -- at least 20 minutes -- to give the igloo a chance to air out.

Her most ideal scenario: Dining under the great open sky. Because, she says, that outdoor air dilutes the virus that may be floating in the air, the wind carrying it away in all directions.

"You still want to follow all the guidelines that you do indoors," Marr said. "Meaning that the tables should be far apart. Ideally, ten feet between people at the nearest tables. People should be wearing masks when they're not eating. You want to minimize contact with the waiter and practice good hygiene."

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At A.O.C. in Los Angeles, they turned their parking lot into an outdoor dining room, ensuring tables are placed six feet apart. But infectious disease expert Rimoin says there is no "zero risk" scenario when it comes to dining.

"The more air circulating, the better it is," said Rimoin. "So someplace that has an awning, has side walls but an open front, is definitely better than a place that is completely closed in."

She also has a recommendation for restaurants -- turn down the music.

"Loud music means you have to speak more loudly," Rimoin said. "And we know that that creates an opportunity to expel more virus."

Something else you'll often see in outdoor dining spaces now? Heat lamps. Experts say that while the heat from those lamps might prompt a little more air movement, it won't dilute any virus. Certainly not as much as access to fresh outdoor air.