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7 Key Takeaways From New York’s New Outdoor Dining Rules

Patrons may be encouraged, but not required, to undergo health screenings

Groups of people gather outside of a bar’s takeout window on a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Groups of people outside in Greenpoint
Gary He/Eater

New York State unexpectedly announced Wednesday that regions of the state in the second phase of reopening can begin outdoor dining as early as Thursday, June 4. Indoor sit-down service will still not be permitted until the third phase of reopening.

Alongside the announcement, the state released an extensive set of outdoor dining guidelines for restaurants and bars to follow. The guidelines emphasize social distancing in every aspect of service, and underscore that masks should be worn by employees at all times and customers while they are not seated.

New York City is expected to begin the first phase of reopening on June 8, which means the five boroughs could see sit-down dining return as early as June 22. It’s also possible that before then, the city will issue its own set of outdoor dining criteria; the guidelines make it clear that local regulations such as permits for outdoor cafes must be adhered to.

The City Council introduced legislation in May to require the transportation department to identify streets, sidewalks, and other places for expanded outdoor dining; Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’s open to the idea of outdoor dining but hasn’t offered specifics.

Here’s a primer on the state’s outdoor dining guidelines, and what they mean for both restaurants and patrons.

Customers can take off face masks when they sit down

Patrons must wear facial coverings while waiting for pickup, walking to and from a table, or walking to a restroom. Once seated, restaurants can “encourage,” but not require customers to keep masks on while not actively drinking or eating.

Large parties and communal tables are permitted but with restrictions

Groups of up to 10 people from different households can dine outside at a single table, which is a fairly large limit; that’s essentially the size of a small private party. Communal tables, by contrast, are forbidden unless restaurants can maintain six feet of distance in between various parties.

Health screenings will be mandatory for employees, not customers

The guidelines require daily employee health screenings, which must include, at a minimum, questions that seek to determine whether a worker has recently had COVID-19 symptoms, a positive diagnosis, or contact within the past two weeks with someone with the novel coronavirus or its symptoms. Those screenings can occur via telephone or electronically. Employers can also conduct temperature screenings but cannot keep records of that data.

Restaurants may “encourage” patrons to undergo screenings but cannot require them to do so. Establishments can also let customers leave their personal information for contact tracing purposes, though it’s not a requirement.

Bartenders and customers need to maintain social distance at outdoor bars

Outdoor bars are allowed to operate alongside restaurants during the reopening, but the same social distancing rules apply. Bars have to ensure that customers can maintain six feet of distance from one another (except if they are members of the same party). Additionally, there has to be enough space so that bar staff can stay six feet apart from both other staff members and the bar’s customers.

The guidelines specify that any food or beverage consumption “must occur at tables or bar tops in these outdoor spaces,” which likely means a typical summertime lounge setup, where patrons spend more time standing up and drinking with strangers than sitting down at a specific table might not be permitted. Then again, the guidelines do not explicitly state that the bar tops be equipped with chairs — a possible loophole that could provide for inter-party congregation.

Ordering ahead is encouraged

In order to minimize time spent at the restaurant, customers should be “encouraged” to order online or over the phone before they arrive, according to the guidelines. This focuses on establishments where diners are seated; customers are less likely to linger at counter-service operations.

Emphasize single-use items when possible

Condiments like ketchup and hot sauce should be served in either single-use containers or vessels that are regularly cleaned, “ideally between each party’s use,” the guidelines state. Menus should be available in either a single-use, disposable format, or on a chalkboard or similar public format that doesn’t require handling. If that’s not possible, menus should be cleaned and disinfected between each use. Restaurants can also direct customers towards digital menus that can be pulled up on a phone, if applicable.

New restrictions on staff family meal

Restaurants cannot allow employees to share food and drinks between themselves while on the job — and ownership should encourage staff to bring their own meals from home. Furthermore, staff has to be given enough space to properly social distance while eating meals on their breaks.