Is it safe to eat on an outdoor patio that is tented and heated?

Some restaurant owners in Ontario are doing what they can to make their patios a welcoming environment in sub-zero temperatures now that indoor dining has been banned by the government.

But one expert warns that too much protection against the frigid temperatures may prove counterproductive when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Indoor dining has been banned until Jan. 26 under the province’s modified Step 2 lockdown rules. Outdoor dining and takeout were permitted to remain in place.

“This really hit them hard,” said James Rilett, Vice President of Central Canada at Restaurants Canada. “We saw a lost holiday season, and now we’re fully locked down. So it’s just very hard on restaurants. And a lot of them, even from the mental health aspect are resigning themselves to deciding whether they want to continue or not.”

Rilett said that allowing outdoor dining in the summer is one thing, but as the temperature continues to plummet many restaurants just don’t have the means to offer that service.

“We’re right in the middle of winter, and it’ll continue to be cold for quite a while now. So I don’t think patios are an option for most, some have tried it and some will continue to try it.”

Those restaurants who are able to offer outdoor dining in the winter often have a setup that includes a type of tented structure along with a heater in order to keep patrons warm enough to enjoy their meals.

Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory, warned that at least one side of the structure needs to be open to allow for enough ventilation to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

“If we start to build greenhouses, the ventilation is basically as indoors and then we don’t have the advantage from outdoors anymore. That’s absolutely clear,” he said.

“if you have a situation where you have one wall, that just protects against wind, and you have the heaters, that’s okay, but if you start to have really a situation where, actually there’s a tent being built, a greenhouse or some other sort of structure that basically doesn’t allow the air to circulate as freely as when you’re outdoors, then you’re in trouble.”

The distinguishing factor in these scenarios is air flow, Jüni added, explaining that it would be better to have an open space for a door on either side of the structure rather than a singular entrance. He said that ventilation is key to preventing the spread of COVID-19 regardless of the temperature.

“We need to be extremely careful, you know, that we don’t make outdoors the new indoors,” Jüni said. “We’re talking about the highly transmissible variant in a crisis, where our health-care system is struggling already, and they will continue to struggle. So we just should take this seriously, just for a few weeks.”

According to Toronto Public Health, a patio in Ontario’s modified Step 2 must have at least two full sides of an outdoor area open and “ensure they are not substantially blocked by any walls or other impermeable physical barriers.”

If there is no roof, the patio must have at least one full side open, officials said.

Toronto Public Health said the city is continuing to educate businesses to ensure they comply with these rules and are responding to complaints and conducting inspections.

Both Jüni and Rilett held out optimism that restaurants will soon be allowed to move their customers indoors, with the science table director saying he hopes to see a change in Ontario’s hospital admissions soon.

“Things will change. They’re about to change I would hope,” Jüni said. “There’s no guarantees yet but it seems that everything is going to the right direction when I look at mobility of people, but we still await the moment when we start to see the curve of hospital occupancy being less steep than right now, and this hasn’t happened yet.”

Rilett says he has been told indoor dining will return after the two-week prohibition period and hopes that means restaurants can “get back to serving people.”

“January and February are usually slower months anyway, but slower and nothing are two extremely different things.”

NO VACCINE REQUIREMENTS FOR PATIOS

It has never been necessary for customers sitting on a patio in Ontario to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Patrons eating indoors, when such a practice was allowed, had to show a QR code or receipt indicating that they have received at least two doses.

However, Jüni said that at this point two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will not make much difference in terms of protecting people from contracting the disease—it will just make a difference in terms of symptom severity and hospital admission.

Jüni said that if the approach was changed to include the third booster shot, future risk could be mitigated.

“Right now you know one of the challenges we had and we are seeing actually with fully vaccinated people is that they were exposing themselves more than other people in restaurants, etc. and they didn’t have much or any protection against infection. Luckily, again like a broken record, protection against serious outcomes holds.”

It is mandatory for individuals to provide proof of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine if they want to enter large indoor event spaces in addition to restaurants. Officials have said previously they would consider changing the requirement to include three doses, but no formal announcement or change has been made yet.

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