As winter approaches, the city’s restaurants have scrambled to replace their outdoor dining areas with structures that offer shelter from not just the sun but also the wind, cold, and snow. But how safe are these “covid cabins,” as they’ve been snarkily coined on social media? 

Over the summer, Despaña, a Spanish store and cafe in Soho, took advantage of the city’s Open Restaurants Program to set up al fresco seating in a parking area on Broome Street. With winter coming, the outdoor cafe now consists of a wooden structure with plastic sheeting on three sides and space heaters attached to the ceiling. Unlike other shack-like structures that have gone up in recent weeks, it isn’t fully enclosed. But that hasn’t prevented it from coming under scrutiny. 

“Just yesterday I had someone come in because I think we partially obscured one of the signs for parking,” said owner Angelica Intriheo. “Maybe somebody got a ticket and called 311 to complain, saying we kept them from seeing the sign.” 

Ultimately the inspector concluded the sign wasn’t fully obstructed, but the incident showed that even for restaurant operators, the regulations around winter dining are unclear. “We need showcasing either on the radio or on television,” said Intriheo, “or at least for the inspectors who come out to have information they can hand out to say to owners: ‘Hey, you know these are the rules now.’”

One common source of confusion, Intriheo said, were the rules regarding space heaters. Heaters are, of course, an important part of making outdoor seating viable into the winter. At the same time, air circulation is key to avoiding exposure in a dining situation. But air circulation is the last thing you want while trying to keep a space warm and comfortable. 

Experts recommend thinking about virus risks like one would smoking. Speaking to Citylab, an engineer who studies airborne virus spread offered advice for evaluating the safety of indoor dining arrangements: Imagine that someone in the outdoor seating area is smoking, and think about how likely you would be to smell their cigarette. If patrons are close together, not separated, or there is no obvious inflow and outflow of air, the risk may be elevated. 

In a conversation with Bedford + Bowery, Dr. Rachel Roper at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine had even simpler advice about outdoor dining in the winter: “Get a really good coat and a hat and scarves. It’s much better to eat outside with you bundled up than to eat inside, warm with a lot more virus.” 

Dr. Roper was on the team that first sequenced and analyzed the SARS coronavirus that emerged in 2003 and is listed as an inventor on the patent for the associated vaccine. As an expert on SARS-CoV-1, she has been applying her knowledge to the study of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“These viruses can be transmitted through the air,” she added. “The problem is that if anyone has the virus– and a lot of people are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, so they don’t know they even have it– if they’re breathing at all they’re spewing virus all into the air around them.”

Roper also pointed out that even with proper air circulation mitigating the dangers, winter dining is still not quite as safe as it was a few months ago. Coronaviruses can be killed by UV rays from the sun, but not only are there fewer hours of daylight in winter, the rays are also weaker. 

“What we were doing in summer was kind of limping along. But it’s no longer working. Fall is a completely different time, so everybody has to be a lot more careful than in the summer.” While she tries to eat out in an effort to support her local restaurants, Roper said she personally wouldn’t eat indoors, opting instead for to-go orders.

Outside of COVID, there are other health and safety concerns that restaurateurs need to take into account when setting up these spaces, and of which customers should also be aware. Outdoor dining areas that are less than 400 square feet in size are overseen by the Department of Transportation, but larger structures, such as Despaña’s, require Department of Buildings involvement. (This is why some restaurants opt to have two smaller seating areas instead of one larger space.) Anything fully enclosed also requires DOB approval, as does anything with electrical wiring or gas heating.  This means the structure requires a construction permit, must be designed by a licensed engineer or registered architect and meet all construction code standards. The contractor must have insurance and proper registration, and the structure becomes subject to additional inspections and enforcement actions. Asked whether there has been an increase in violations relating to these structures, the Department of Buildings deferred to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to requests for comment. 

Additionally, while heaters will make it possible for outdoor seating to remain viable through the winter, there are strict rules involved. Electric heaters can be installed in both built structures and sidewalk seating areas, but require additional oversight by the Department of Buildings. These systems must be installed by certified plumbers and electricians, and the added expense and regulations may dissuade some owners from opting for them.

Meanwhile, natural gas radiant heaters and traditional propane heaters are only permitted to be used on sidewalks. Many of the “umbrella”-shaped heaters fit into this category, and aren’t allowed to be placed inside of structures or on the road. As of the week of November 9, the fire department had removed or confiscated 111 propane containers for improper storage or use, according to the FDNY. A total of 172 violations had been issued related to propane heaters, mostly having to do with unsubmitted paperwork, a lack of fire extinguishers, or heater placement that deviated from a stated plan. All of these issues have been easy enough fixes that restaurants have been permitted to remedy the situation without a financial penalty, an FDNY spokesperson said.

The Open Restaurants Program represents a lifeline to beleaguered businesses across the city, but diners should still consider the relative advantages of take-out or delivery instead of dining in. Early evidence of a post-Thanksgiving spike indicates caution is still necessary to make sure your next meal isn’t one of the last.