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The Case for Outdoor Dining Right Now

Cult-hit Korean steakhouse Cote’s service director, Wesley Sohn, says it’s vital diners make a case-by-case decision when choosing to eat out

A man wearing a mask cleaning a wooden table
A server at Korean steakhouse Cote
Leslie Noye [Official]

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

Do you remember the last time you dined out? Sat in a restaurant with your friends and family, excitedly deciding what to drink, discussing what you loved about the dish, and conversing about your daily lives?

I know, I miss it too.

There are concerns that it might be too soon to return to restaurants — in fact, many restaurants and bars across the country have been forced to close again, largely due to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Yet New York City has now largely curtailed the spread of the virus, and there hasn’t been a surge in cases in the city nearly two months after outdoor dining began. There’s evidence that outdoor dining can be safe, yet people are reluctant to return. I’m here to tell you why you should consider dining outside right now.

As New York City restaurants, we are doing our best to bring a sense of normalcy to dining out. It can sometimes feel like being in favor of eating outside can make you anti-workers or someone who doesn’t prioritize workers’ health.

But it’s critical that we have an open dialogue. The fierce discourse around outdoor dining is beginning to mirror the polarization across the country, whether it be differences on wearing masks, disagreements over getting a COVID-19 vaccine, or supporting your political party of choice.

There are some who would argue that you are being actively irresponsible by dining out right now, and risking the lives of restaurant workers and other diners. Eater critic Ryan Sutton goes as far as to call dining out “a morally indefensible transaction” in an article from earlier this summer. There are others who argue that not eating out enough will hobble the economy and prevent us from returning back to normal. Surely the right way to go about this lies somewhere in the middle.

It’s important to decide whether to dine out on a case-by-case basis. Don’t just write off going to restaurants altogether. Call your favorite restaurants and ask how they’ve prepared for the current climate. If they aren’t able to answer your questions over the phone, send them an email. If a restaurant cannot adequately answer your phone calls or respond to your email about these very real concerns, they probably do not deserve your visit!

When you walk by a restaurant, see if the tables are spaced six feet apart. Try to check if the tables are being sanitized between different groups of diners. Businesses have an obligation to assure your safety and communicate. By pushing them to have these conversations and questions, restaurants will be motivated to keep good sanitary practices.

Additionally, observe and see most if the restaurant staff are protected. In states across the country, restaurants that reopened without adequate guidelines from their local governments saw a spike in COVID-19 cases among staffers. New York’s restaurant reopening plan — which is publicly accessible — includes some of the most stringent protections across the nation. Ask your local restaurants if they are providing these protections — including face masks and sanitizers — to their workers.

The majority of restaurant staff who are returning to work outdoor dining are doing so not only because they need to, but also because they want to. You are not forcing the staff to come back to work by dining out; you are supporting those who have already decided to come back to restaurants.

With the recent state crackdown on restaurants and bars in the city, where patrons have been found not social distancing or wearing masks, it is understandable you would be concerned about eating out. There are certainly many places that aren’t obeying the law or doing what’s best for their customers and staff. I hope you know that as a restaurant operator, this enrages me as much as it does you. It is all of our goal to eventually reach a level of safety where it will be ok to return to indoor dining — it is simply not sustainable to rely on outdoor dining for the long-term.

Hundreds of restaurants have already shuttered permanently as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, and many more are likely to follow if we aren’t able to safely return to indoor dining. It is in our own interests to ensure your safety and the safety of our workers — our businesses and livelihoods literally depend on it. We need public safety in order to survive and succeed.

Don’t let your decision to eat outside right now be solely guided by the minority of restaurants and bars that are skirting the existing guidelines. I started working in the restaurant industry to build a sense of community, and slowly but surely, we want to be able to return to that. So call your favorite restaurants; let’s have a conversation, and do consider dining out within your comfort zone. You will hopefully be reminded of how lovely it is to share a dining experience with your community.

Wesley Sohn is a partner and the service director of Cote. Wesley has been part of Cote’s opening team as well as the team that has led Cote’s conversion to takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining.

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