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As the weather grows colder, some local restaurants have erected tents on their outdoor dining spaces on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. They might be located outside, but they’re still classified as “indoor dining,” and officials urge residents to take precautions and know their risks when electing to dine out.

Both the city of Charlottesville and the Thomas Jefferson Health District classify dining tents as indoor dining and say the operational protocols still fall under Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order pertaining to dining establishments. 

Spokesperson for TJHD, Kathryn Goodman, said that it’s safer for residents to order delivery or pickup from their favorite restaurants “simply because they are limiting exposure to anyone outside of their household.”

“However, it is their choice to dine in at a restaurant and restaurants are working hard to meet the COVID executive order regulations,” she added.  

According to Executive Order 72, dining establishments must: 

  • Space dining parties 6 feet apart
  • Ensure patrons are wearing face coverings except when eating or drinking
  • Ensure that all staff wear face coverings while at work
  • Maintain routine cleaning and sanitization
  • Stop the sale of alcoholic beverages at 10 p.m. and close by midnight

In being labeled as indoors, these same rules apply to dining tents. 

Currently, the city of Charlottesville offers applications for restaurants wishing to set up tents for temporary use amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with an expiration date set for 15 days following the end of the state and local emergency declarations. 

With the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines arriving locally and nationwide this week, officials say it will still be some time before they are widely distributed. In the meantime, continued practice mitigation methods are encouraged. 

The conditions for permit approval outline various protocols, to include approval by the city’s fire marshal for every individual heating lamp; that tents be within particular dimensions; the prohibition of open flames within tents; and other logistics regarding tent placement as to not disrupt pedestrian traffic and fire lanes. 

“A tent with even one side is considered enclosed and must meet indoor dining regulations,” said Charlottesville Assistant Zoning Administrator Craig Fabio. 

As the city is only approving use and placement of tents, more detailed safety guidelines come from the governor’s executive orders and Virginia’s health department. 

“There can be some risk associated with poor airflow in outdoor tents,” Goodman cautioned. “We [TJHD] encourage food-service operators to consult with HVAC contractors for better air flow designs and handling.”

Meanwhile owner of Petit Pois, Brian Helleberg, says he views the tent outside of his restaurant “sort of expanding on our indoor dining.” 

Petit Pois already had a small indoor dining room that has now been reduced to three tables with fans running inside. For his patio seating, some remain spaced apart outside of a tent, while other seats are spaced apart under a tent that has one of its walls entirely open to allow for air flow. Similarly, the other restaurant he owns just off the Downtown Mall, Fleurie, has a mix of true outdoor seating and a tent with a wall opened. 

However, while commending the community’s and businesses’ efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, Goodman said that ultimately anyone who wishes to dine out should be mindful of their risks and comfort levels. 

“Customers should be aware of their surroundings and assess the amount of air flow and decide on their comfort level for dining indoors right now,” Goodman said of both brick-and-mortar indoor dining and the tents erected outside.

On the safety of dining in tents, Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care physician at University of Virginia Health, said there’s a spectrum of factors that make some tents safer or less safe than others. He noted the tents he’s seen that are not totally enclosed to allow for airflow comparable to being totally outside. 

“I’ve seen a few tents that did not have walls and air was able to circulate freely through,” Bell explained. “I think something like that is essentially equivalent to the outdoors because your ventilation is about the same as it would be outside.”

Meanwhile he reiterates health department classification for tents as indoor spaces — particularly the ones that are totally enclosed. 

“To me, it just seems like another version of a room. It’s just that you’ve moved the room outside and covered it on all sides,” Bell said. 

Ventilation, he stresses, will play a role in minimizing COVID risk. 

“I think that will be one of the keys — to make sure that there is fresh air circulating whether it’s through windows in the tent or that the tent is open on at least two sides,” he explained. 

For Dr. Bell personally, dining out has not been a choice for much of this year. 

“The way I’m managing this is by just ordering takeout and bringing it to my home,” Bell said. “I haven’t been on the Downtown Mall inside a restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic.”