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Dining Together, Apart
Photograph: Kevin Conway, Flightless Bird Creative

How safe are outdoor dining igloos? Chicago experts weigh in.

We talked to two infectious disease experts to find out.

By
Emma Krupp
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With indoor dining currently on hold in Chicago and winter fast approaching, many restaurants have turned to enclosed outdoor dining structures—like igloos, geodesic domes or greenhouses—as way to seat guests outside even as the temperature drops. In theory, these structures are meant to shield tables from the elements while reducing the spread of COVID-19, a boon for diners and profit-starved restaurants alike.

But just how much are you mitigating COVID risk for your dining party (and your server) by having your meal in an igloo or a dome? That depends on several factors, experts say, but first and foremost: Dining outdoors, whether in an igloo or not, is almost always safer than indoor dining.

"I think igloo dining is a really creative way to think about outdoor dining in colder climates," says Dr. Anu Hazra, an assistant professor in the section of infectious diseases and global health at the University of Chicago. "We know that this coronavirus is aided by poor ventilation, and places that are less ventilated indoors will have higher ease of transmissibility than places that have higher ventilation, which is why in general outdoor dining always seems to be a safer option."

That's an easy enough distinction to make in the summer months, when open-air seating allows for natural ventilation. But when it comes to igloo dining, not all structures are built alike—for a safer experience, look for igloo and enclosure set-ups with open airflow and limited contact with other parties.

"One of the important things is that all of those structures are very different, so the risks may be very different, depending on how it's set up,says Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine physician. Because the virus that causes COVID-19 is most readily spread through the air, Khan says, well-ventilated enclosures such as a heated, open-sided tent or an igloo with multiple openings are lower risk than completely sealed enclosures. 

It goes back to people understanding that risk just isn't black and white.

The benefits extend to servers and other restaurant staff, Khan and Hazra noted, whose potential exposure is lowered when interacting with table "pods" as opposed to an indoor or otherwise enclosed setting.

For extra air circulation, look out spots with filtration devices set up in their outdoor dining enclosures. Though responsible restaurants will sanitize the surfaces of each bubble between parties, surface-to-surface transmission is not thought to be the main way the virus is spread—and infectious aerosols are thought to linger in the air for up to several hours.

"What I would really want to make sure is whatever space, whether it be enclosed or not, is at least somewhat ventilated, either with a fan or something to try to push out stale air after a party leaves," Hazra says. 

Even with igloos, pods and other safety precautions in place, potential diners will still need to weigh the risks of dining out at all as cases skyrocket throughout the city—there's "no way to make risk come down to zero," Khan says. Filtration and air flow help, but many factors of transmission remain uncontrollable.

If you do choose to dine out in an igloo (a well-ventilated one, we hope!), be sure to implement practical safety precautions (like wearing a mask), tip well and stay informed about evolving advice from public health authorities. 

"It goes back to people understanding that risk just isn't black and white," Hazra says. "There's no on or off switch for risk—anything we do in our lives will carry some sort of risk, and that's okay, because we need to somehow stay sane through all of this and have a sustainable approach, because this is going to be going on for a little bit of time."

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