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Restaurants Try To Adapt During The COVID-19 Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Coronavirus, of course, has pushed people outdoors. And so restaurants are getting creative. Yurts, greenhouses, igloos and tents - that's what eating out looks like in a lot of places right now. Will Stone checked out a few restaurant adaptations in Seattle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, anything else?

WILL STONE, BYLINE: It's a blustery December evening in Seattle, and the servers at Canlis are huddled outside in flannel and puffy vests, preparing for a night of fine dining.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go.

STONE: Their boss Mark Canlis is giving a bit of a pep talk before guests arrive.

MARK CANLIS: To me, the hospitality out here is the exact same as it is in there, but looks really different. Try to invite them into the yurtiness (ph) of what we're doing.

STONE: Yes, yurtiness. In the parking lot, Canlis has erected a small yurt village.

CANLIS: And there's a goat hanging on a wall there and some reindeer skins.

STONE: It's basically a souped-up circular tent. Each fits one table.

CANLIS: We keep the windows and the doors open, which makes it a little chillier than most fine-dining restaurants. It's a little bit the adventure of it.

STONE: Guests are greeted at a green truck that doubles as the maitre d' stand. Nearby, there's a crackling fire and pine trees.

CANLIS: We'll give them this little hot cup of cider and be like, hey, while we're taking your temperature and giving you kind of the lowdown of how to dine out these days, warm your hands, have a little sip.

STONE: Washington state shut down indoor dining in mid-November. Chicago and Denver have done the same. The yurts at Canlis not only shield diners from the elements, but also from infectious particles that could spread between tables if they were close together. And they comply with all the detailed rules the state has rolled out for outdoor dining structures.

CANLIS: What is the square inches of yurt volume space? What is the size of the door and the windows? How many minutes will we allow the yurt to breathe?

STONE: The yurts get cleaned between parties. The servers come in briefly with N95 masks. Inside the yurt, the risk of catching the virus is there. People are sitting near each other without masks. But Canlis says that he can't regulate.

CANLIS: I'm not the governor or the CDC. I am assuming that if you're together at the table, you're taking your health into your own hands.

STONE: A more modern take on outdoor dining that has popped up all over the country are domelike structures that resemble transparent igloos.

TIM BAKER: I'll let you go in there since you and I are not part of the same household.

STONE: That's Tim Baker, who owns San Fermo, an Italian restaurant in the heart of Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. He's set up several of these igloos imported from Lithuania next to the sidewalk.

BAKER: They just came in these boxes of 160 individually wrapped hexagon panels - build your own geodome (ph). It was crazy.

STONE: Baker has decided to only let two people in these igloos at a time just to be safe. And he's consulted with experts on airflow who advised him to get a hot air cannon.

BAKER: You fire this cannon up, it just pushes the air through really aggressively.

STONE: That clears any lingering particles that could carry the coronavirus through the breathable plastic frame.

BAKER: You're completely enclosed in your own space with somebody in your own household, and the server doesn't go in with you. I just can't imagine anything safer than that.

STONE: These private dining structures can be pretty safe. Dr. Richard Corsi, an aerosol scientist at Portland State University, says eating outside is much better. Infectious particles don't build up, and even if you're close to someone, they're not as concentrated.

RICHARD CORSI: There's higher air speeds. There's more dispersion. There's more mixing than you find indoors.

STONE: So when you apply that to outdoor dining...

CORSI: The safest that we're talking about here is no walls, a roof, And then I think the worst is fully enclosed, which is essentially an indoor tent, especially if it doesn't have really good ventilation and good physical distancing.

STONE: In fact, these walled-up outdoor structures can end up being worse than the indoors if lots of people are together at once. Outdoors has become a lifeline for an industry on track to lose more than $200 billion this year. Mike Whatley is with the National Restaurant Association.

MIKE WHATLEY: Unfortunately, with winter coming up, it's getting even more challenging.

STONE: He says back in September, close to 70% of restaurants surveyed were doing outdoor dining. Now it's closer to 50%. And it's not just the weather - some places, including LA and recently Baltimore, have prohibited indoor and outdoor dining.

WHATLEY: We understand there's pressure there to make decisions that will slow the spread. But we don't want to be scapegoated as an industry. We do believe that we're safe.

STONE: And in the months ahead, Whatley hopes restaurants get a chance to show eating outside is feasible and responsible.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

KING: That story comes from NPR's partnership with KPCC and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.