Food & Drink

As Michigan restaurants extend outdoor dining amid the pandemic, beware a false sense of security

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This fall's coronavirus surge in Michigan is already dwarfing the one seen in the spring, when the state was one of the top hotspots in the country. On Saturday, officials reported 350,021 confirmed cases and 9,036 deaths, and the state has a 13% positive test rate.

In response to the sharp rise in cases, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced a three-week ban on gatherings of more than two households, as well as the closure of dine-in restaurants, which have been linked to COVID-19 cases. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who developed COVID-19 symptoms were twice as likely to have dined in a restaurant two weeks before becoming ill. The ban went into effect on Wednesday, Nov. 18 and expires Wednesday, Dec. 9 — assuming it doesn't get extended. The orders are epidemic orders and not affected by the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that found Whitmer's emergency powers unconstitutional.

To stay afloat, many local restaurants have turned to tents, plastic "igloos," heaters, and other ways to extend their outdoor dining options, and Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and the Small Business Association of Michigan announced $3 million in grant money to help businesses winterize their outdoor spaces.

However, health officials have warned that a false sense of security could come from them. Basically, at a certain point dining "outside" in a tent with many other people poses the same risk as dining inside — and could be even riskier.

"When you're making those outdoor spaces look a lot more like indoor spaces — so if they have, all of a sudden, three-and-a-half walls, or the air flow's not great, or there's lots of people still at a table, then you kind of get rid of all of the potential benefits of outside," Jaimie Meyer, an infectious-disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, tells Business Insider.

Social distancing and air flow are the best ways to protect against the coronavirus, but that isn't always possible in a small tent. Meyer recommends people dine only with other people in their household or "pod" of two households, and the MDHHS has recommended that people only interact with their own pod for the duration of the three-week health order. In Detroit, three sides of the tent must remain open, and are restricted to six or fewer members of a single household.

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association attempted to sue MDHHS over the ban, contending that the epidemic orders will force 40% of restaurants to close, at least temporarily, and could result in around 250,000 employees being laid off over the holiday season. The lawsuit also says the economic impact of the pandemic could see at least 6,000 Michigan restaurants permanently close by the spring, and 2,000 have been forced to close so far. But a judge rejected the MRLA's request for a restraining order.

Whitmer has called on President Donald Trump to work with Congress to pass a new round of financial aid for restaurant workers. In the meantime, if you want to support your favorite local spot but are unsure of the risks of dining in a tent, remember you can always order carry-out.

Related: 35 Detroit area restaurants with igloos, tents, and heated outdoor seating

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