Your personal safety checklist for Bay Area outdoor dining during coronavirus

For those dining outdoors during the pandemic, choosing where to go doesn’t come down to just food cravings or atmosphere anymore. Health and safety are now paramount concerns for many, and with restaurants offering varying safety measures based on their own comfort levels, it can be hard to judge which are going beyond what public health orders require — or even what measures to seek out.

To be clear, most Bay Area restaurants are putting in tons of work (and money) to make eating out feel safer during the pandemic. Assuming they’re following state guidelines, they’re spacing tables at least 6 feet apart, masking up their employees and regularly disinfecting hard surfaces. They might also be spending thousands to build plexiglass barriers or entirely new patios.

Still, many restaurants are doing more than what the law requires, and there are plenty of extras that diners can look for when scoping out options for dining outdoors, which is considered to pose a lower risk for virus transmission than being around other people indoors.

There’s no “right” answer on which restaurant is the most safe, so consider this a checklist of extra safety measures to help you navigate your own comfort level when dining out. Keep in mind that the only surefire way to avoid coronavirus is to stay at home. And your own behavior — such as wearing a mask when not eating — plays a critical role in health, too.

General manager Den Stephens disinfects an outdoor booth at Oakland restaurant the North Light.

Many restaurants outline their safety guidelines on their websites, so that’s a good place to check first. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to call ahead and ask about some of these measures.

1. Limited table service: The coronavirus spreads through person-to-person contact, so many restaurants have turned to counter service to eliminate close contact between diners and restaurant staff. With this style of service, diners order and then go to an outdoor table, with no servers coming by to check in on food, refill water or talk about the menu.

But there are still variables within this category. Some places require customers to wait for their food near the counter. If the restaurant is really popular, waiting near the counter might result in crowding — and it’s possible employees won’t be able to act as quickly in disinfecting tables after customers leave if they’re not regularly patrolling the floor. This is something our staff has witnessed at a restaurant, even though the restaurant had posted signs about its speedy cleaning protocols.

Other restaurants avoid this problem by having staffers run dishes out to tables, either shouting out names or finding numbers handed to diners when they pay. In these cases, a server coming to the table is another point of human contact. Still, it limits the amount of interaction — and theoretically, it cuts down on the awkwardness of putting your mask back on between bites whenever your server approaches.

It’s not always obvious which restaurants have switched to counter service or what format they’re offering, so call and ask if this is important to you. Ultimately, there is no perfect solution. Diners can be unpredictable, so some might feel more comfortable at a full-service restaurant where everyone is seated.

2. Encouraging reservations: If a restaurant does offer full service, it might be a good sign if it encourages or even requires reservations. Reservations allow restaurants to fully control the space and show that it’s attempting to ensure there aren’t unexpected crowds wandering near tables. Scheduled seatings mean diners arrive at staggered times.

That was the thinking behind Oakland restaurant North Light reopening its patio. “Switching to reservations also allows us to control our messaging with guests before they arrive,” emailed owner Dan Stone, “so they know what to expect in visiting us, and we can make sure they’re aware of our safety measures and requirements.”

This messaging might include reminders to wear masks whenever diners aren’t eating, or information about time limits for the length of the reservation. The North Light, for example, gives diners a heads-up that the restaurant space is narrow and that they should wait if someone else is walking by instead of creating two-way traffic. Some restaurants with reservations are also doing contact tracing (more on that later).

3. Patios where tables are more than 6 feet apart: Restaurants all say their tables are 6 feet apart, but our reporters have seen tables appear dangerously close together. Perhaps the tables are 6 feet apart, but the chairs aren’t, and that can lead to strangers sitting almost back-to-back. An extra-spacious outdoor dining space is going to be more comfortable for everyone. Some restaurants will say on their websites that their tables are “6 or more feet” apart, and that’s typically a good sign. Because many patios aren’t perfectly rectangular and tables can be different sizes, some tables might be just 6 feet apart, while the distance between others may be closer to 10 feet.

4. Plexiglass barriers between tables: San Francisco dim sum restaurant Yank Sing’s tables are generally more than 6 feet apart, but in some cases, the restaurant added tall acrylic barriers between them as an added layer of protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and World Health Organization all recommend plexiglass shields whenever maintaining 6 feet of physical distance isn’t possible.

5. Enclosed patio: One potentially nerve-racking part of sidewalk or parking-lane dining is unmasked strangers who might walk past tables. Some restaurants are fortunate enough to have an enclosed patio — or a parking lot they can turn into an enclosed patio. It’s the benefit of a controlled space. They might have walls surrounding them, like the North Light, or they might have plexiglass barriers separating them from the sidewalk, like Yank Sing. The Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa spent $1,500 to build a garden patio on its adjacent parking lot, figuring it would create a more pleasant dining environment.

Diners are given a QR code as a touchless way to access the menu at the North Light in Oakland.

6. Online ordering: Allowing customers to order online in advance or through their phones cuts down interaction time with restaurant staff. This occurs most often in a counter-service format, but some restaurants that hew closer to full service offer this, too. It’s especially helpful if a diner wants to, say, order another cocktail without flagging down a server, thus limiting person-to-person contact.

7. QR code menus: A QR code is a touch-free way for diners to look at a menu on their smartphone. (If a diner doesn’t have a smartphone, some restaurants keep paper menus onhand.) While not quite as helpful as an online ordering system, QR code menus still help reduce contact between diners and workers.

8. Disposable tableware: Many restaurants have taken to using sealed disposable utensils so diners know a server hasn’t handled them, as well as disposable cups and plates, efforts recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This can certainly take away from the dining experience — especially if the restaurant packages everything in unwieldy takeout boxes — but it can cut down on person-to-person contact; customers dispose of their own “dishes” instead of an employee coming to the table to clear them.

Epidemiologists have said reusable dishes shouldn’t be a problem if dishwashers handle them properly. But it’s possible that restaurant employees could contract coronavirus if they touch a fork used by a contagious customer and then touch their eyes or mouth.

Disposables remove that risk entirely, which is why Spinster Sisters owner Liza Hinman switched to compostables despite hating generating waste. “I think the conversation around the dish area in a kitchen is one that isn’t talked about enough,” she said by email.

San Francisco restaurant Prubechu uses an infrared thermometer to check the temperature of customers before they enter the patio.

9. Temperature checks for customers: While many restaurants have a policy of checking employees’ temperatures every day, far fewer are checking diners’ temperatures. It’s an imperfect solution, since many people infected with COVID-19 experience no symptoms, but it displays an extra level of commitment to safe dining.

10. Contact tracing: Some restaurants collect diners’ contact information before they eat so they can be alerted if a positive coronavirus test result ever gets linked to the restaurant. San Francisco restaurant Prubechu, for example, has a lengthy check-in process for its patio, which includes getting a temperature check, filling out a health declaration form and providing contact information. If diners refuse, they’re sent away.

The restaurant hasn’t experienced any virus cases yet, but if a diner who ate at Prubechu on a Tuesday called the next week to say they had tested positive, Prubechu’s staff would contact everyone who had dined at the restaurant from that Tuesday onward — and get all of its employees tested immediately.

When the Prubechu team was discussing reopening for indoor dining, co-owner Shawn Camacho said he thought about the well-being of diners as well as employees, especially those who don’t qualify for government aid. “They have no alternative, they need to be at work,” Camacho said. “If we’re going to put them at risk without any safety protocols, that’s irresponsible of us as business owners.”

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker

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