What to Know About Outdoor Dining Right Now

outdoor dining


Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Outdoor dining is an option in many areas now, but it comes with some level of risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • Experts say the longer amount of time you spend at a restaurant, even outdoors, the higher your risk.
  • There are some things you can do to lower your risk, such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

Public health officials have made it clear that going anywhere these days comes with some risk of contracting COVID-19. But not every activity outside your home has the same level of risk, and how you approach each one matters.

Dining out is a topic that has repeatedly come up, especially comparing indoor vs. outdoor dining. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states online that dining inside a restaurant has a high level of risk, but what about outdoor dining? Here’s what you need to know.

Is Outdoor Dining Safe?

According to the CDC, the level of COVID-19 risk depends on how you dine out.

Lowest Risk

  • Drive-through
  • Delivery
  • Take-out
  • Curbside pickup

More Risk

  • On-site dining limited to outdoor seating, where tables are spaced at least six feet apart

Highest Risk

  • On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating where tables aren’t spaced at least six feet apart

It’s important to remember that outdoor dining in a public space still comes with some level of risk, Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Verywell. “The main problem is remaining in one spot for an extended amount of time,” he says.

Outdoor dining with friends, like at a picnic or BBQ, also comes with a similar level of risk, Watkins says.

The Way COVID-19 Is Transmitted Matters

COVID-19 is mostly spread by respiratory droplets that are released when infected people talk, cough, or sneeze. These droplets are dense and fall quickly to the ground. So in an outdoor setting, especially where people are still practicing social distancing as much as possible, they're less likely to accumulate before falling.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged that COVID-19 may be spread through aerosolized particles. These particles, called aerosols, can stay suspended in the air for longer periods of time. Those aerosols can then be inhaled by people, infecting them in the process, but this is also less likely to happen outdoors. Aerosols may be responsible for outbreaks of COVID-19 in indoor settings like restaurants, nightclubs, churches, or offices.

How Can You Dine Out Safely?

The CDC has a few very specific recommendations on how to make your outdoor dining experience as safe as possible, both before you go and while you’re there.

Before You Go:

  • Check the restaurant’s website and social media to see if they’ve updated their information to address COVID-19 safety guidelines.
  • Call and ask ahead of time if all staff are wearing cloth face coverings while at work.
  • Ask if self-parking is available to remove the need for a valet service.

When You're There:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you arrive. Do the same thing when you leave. If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Wear a mask when you’re less than six feet apart from other people, or if you need to venture indoors. 
  • Wear a mask as much as possible when you’re not eating.
  • Try to distance yourself out from other people you’re eating with who don’t live in your household. 
  • Try to stay six feet or more away from any entryway, hallway, or waiting area.
  • Sit outside at tables that are spaced at least six feet apart from other people.
  • Choose food and drink options that aren’t self-serve to limit the use of shared serving utensils and handles.
  • Before using the restroom, make sure there is enough soap and paper towels or hand sanitizer with least 60% alcohol.

Keeping your distance from others outside your household is crucial, David Cennimo, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Verywell. “I do not want to sit two feet away from the next table and pretend it’s fine because we are outside,” he says.

The mask element is also important, Cennimo says—even if it’s not required by local law or the individual establishment.

“Always wear your mask unless you're actually sitting at the table eating,” he says.

To minimize your potential exposure, Watkins recommends that you don’t linger.

"Eat and leave—skip dessert," he says.

What This Means For You

While safer than indoor dining, outdoor dining isn’t a risk-free activity these days. If you decide to do it, taking the proper precautions should minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19. But, if you’re especially worried, it’s probably better to stick with take-out.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considerations for restaurants and bars.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How COVID-19 spreads.

  3. World Health Organization. How is COVID-19 transmitted?

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Personal and social activities.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.