Covered And Heated Patios Aren’t Much Safer Than Being Indoors, Expert Says

"As soon you start putting walls up, you're creating an indoor space."
Pedestrians walk by a tented patio on Bloor Street in Toronto.
Pedestrians walk by a tented patio on Bloor Street in Toronto.

It’s hard to accept, but patio season is over.

Because we know that the virus that causes COVID-19 is much more likely to spread indoors than outdoors, many restaurants and bars across the country have been keeping their patios open much later than usual. In early fall, this meant the addition of heat lamps.

But now, many places are going further by turning their patios into a makeshift tents, with plastic walls and, in many cases, a roof.

One expert says that defeats the entire purpose of staying outside.

“Outdoors is meant to be outdoors,” Eleanor Fish, a doctor and professor in the University of Toronto’s Immunology Department, told HuffPost Canada. Outdoor patios were great in the summer, when people could maintain distance from one another and air could circulate freely, she said.

But “as soon as you start enclosing space, you can fool yourself that it’s still outdoors, but the reality is that unless you have air circulating to the outside very efficiently, people are putting themselves at risk.”

“As soon as you start putting walls up, you’re creating an indoor space.”

- Eleanor Fish, University of Toronto

There’s no significant difference between eating on a covered patio and eating indoors, she said. “You’re essentially extending your indoors outdoors.”

The growing consensus from scientists is that COVID-19 can be transmitted through aerosol particles, not just droplets. In other words, if you’re in an enclosed space with someone’s who’s infected, you don’t need to be close to them to become infected yourself.

“As soon as you start putting walls up, you’re creating an indoor space,” Fish explained. “You’re circulating [the virus] indoors without venting it.”

Ventilation is big part of COVID-19 prevention, as these graphics from the Spanish newspaper El País effectively illustrate.

An outdoor tented restaurant area in New York City. 
An outdoor tented restaurant area in New York City. 

Adding a fan to help with air circulation can help in theory, but it won’t make significant difference. Masks also aren’t effective on their own without proper ventilation — and obviously, people eating and drinking won’t be wearings masks for a long time.

It’s understandable that people long for social connection, she said. We’re in the eighth month of this pandemic, and things are hard. People miss their friends, the government’s messaging is often unclear, and the restaurant industry is suffering.

“But this is not the way to proceed,” she said. “I think it’s really risky behaviour for people to be out and about.” If this doesn’t stop, she said, “I think we’re destined for what’s happening in Europe, what’s happening in the States,” with disturbingly high case loads and second lockdowns.

She suggests ordering food for delivery, or arranging curbside pickup, as a safer alternative to support the restaurant industry.

“We shouldn’t be going to any sort of outdoor patio at this stage of the game.”