- Restaurants are setting up al fresco dining spaces, but how many tables can you really safely fit on a sidewalk?
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that tables be at least six feet apart.
- Restaurants need to keep those with disabilities in mind, ensuring there is at least 4 feet of available sidewalk space.
While al fresco may mean "in the cool air" in Italian, it's lately come to mean "time to finally visit restaurants again" in the midst of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
As most states start to open back up with restrictions, including eating outside of restaurants instead of sitting indoors, it raises some important questions. In regards to al fresco dining, just how safe is it really to sit and eat on sidewalks, blocked-off streets, patios, or parking lots? And how can restaurants ensure they're being fair to pedestrians and those with disabilities?
Let's use math to find the answers.
Say your local family-operated Italian restaurant is setting up outdoor tables for the first time. This place is in the center of town, where people often parallel park, and there isn't any back garden area, wraparound patio, or parking lot.
But that's okay. This restaurant is located in St. Louis, where the governor of Missouri has introduced the 2020 Temporary Outdoor Seating Expansion permit. That allows the restaurant to set up tables along the sidewalk, as long as they're at least 6 feet apart—per a May 27 bulletin from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and the sidewalks maintain at least 4 feet of throughway for pedestrians and those who use wheelchairs, to keep compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
Imagine one city block is about 600 feet wide and can fit 20 storefronts. That means each business takes up about 30 feet along the sidewalk. As for the sidewalk, it's about 12 feet wide, on the larger end of the National Association of City Transportation Officials' suggested width of 8 to 12 to feet.
Altogether, the 30-by-12 foot space offers 360 square feet of room. But because we need to leave 4 feet of space for pedestrians, the restaurant really only has a 30-by-8 foot space to work with, or 240 square feet. Assuming each space in the grid below is 2 square feet, the restaurant could set up only three tables with four seats, if each seat is always at least 6 feet from the next closest one, without going outside the allotted space.
However, if the restaurant interprets the CDC's recommendation to mean the tables just have to be 6 feet apart—meaning your chair is actually less than 6 feet away from the next patron's seat, in some scenarios—the restaurant could fit four tables with four seats each. So some chairs in this array are only actually 2 feet apart.
But what if the restaurant ignored the rules for pedestrians, using all 12 feet of sidewalk width, rather than just 8? And what if the eatery used that interpretation where only the tables need to be 6 feet apart? Then, it could set up four tables with four place settings each, and four more tables with three place settings each.
While we certainly hope your favorite restaurants are following local ordinances and CDC guidelines, implementation can often take various forms, especially when this is all so new. Restaurants are still a business, after all, and so they want to pack as many people as they can onto sidewalks. Please use your own discretion when dining out.
🍝 You should be safe to eat here if...
- All of the chairs (not just the tables) are at least 6 feet apart.
- The restaurant has left at least 4 feet of room on the sidewalk for those in wheelchairs, and other pedestrians.
- Dining is set up in a closed-off street (pedestrian traffic will be no issue).
- Your server is wearing a protective face mask and gloves, changing them often.
- Tables have been sanitized.
You don't have to whip out a measuring tape everywhere you go, but use common sense if you notice tables are closer together than 6 feet apart, or if you see a restaurant isn't keeping sidewalks compliant with ADA rules. This is only one scenario about one imaginary restaurant and its sidewalk, but the same general rules apply no matter where you decide to grab a bite.
If the restaurant clearly isn't following the rules or making room for those with disabilities, switch your order to takeout, and maybe give the manager a friendly reminder that people in wheelchairs like to use the sidewalk and dine out, too.
The main reason many city restaurants don't have more outdoor space is regulations on sidewalk width. ADA rules about wheelchair access is a hard limit (3'), some places have mandatory street trees, etc. Often buildings are just too close to the road.— (((Sarah))) (@smpa) April 24, 2020
Interesting use of parklets in Halifax - restaurant patio extends out over sidewalk, parklet extends sidewalk around it. I noticed they take care to ensure they're wheelchair accessible. I assume patios are removed in winter. pic.twitter.com/apaBcBiuRP— Dylan Reid (@dylan_reid) August 16, 2019
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