clock menu more-arrow no yes
A black fence separates tables full of diners from the sidewalk, as a waitress in a mask walks out of the frame on the right.
Before you select a place, make sure the tables are well spaced.
Robert Sietsema/Eater

The Etiquette of Eating Outdoors During a Pandemic

Once upon a time, etiquette experts like Emily Post and advice columnists like Ann Landers blew through bottles of ink formulating rules to be observed when dining. Elaborate formulae governed placement of knives, forks, and spoons; determination of where guests should be seated; the proper way to pour wine; and, perhaps most important of all, not putting your elbows on the table.

Well, a whole new set of etiquette rules must be formulated in the age of COVID-19, though many of the old ones still apply. But the placement of a fork is no longer of such importance as, for example, how to stifle a cough or when to clean your hands. Not to be too dramatic, but such considerations can now be literally a matter of life or death. Never has etiquette — let’s call it “pandemiquette” — mattered so much.

Some Obvious Outdoor Considerations

Most restaurants with outdoor spaces don’t take reservations for them. This is partly to the good, allowing you to examine the situation before you sit down to dine. If the tables are too close together, if sanitary procedures (e.g., carefully wiping down tables) are not being observed, or if those waiting for tables are standing in a big clump by the diners, choose another place.

Waiting for a table on a crowded sidewalk is a bad thing, but if you find yourself inclined to do so, keep your mask firmly affixed and maintain social distancing. Or try going as soon as a restaurant opens for service, at, say, 5 p.m. or around closing time at 10 p.m., throwing away any idea of dining at a stylish hour. An uncrowded outdoor cafe is better than a crowded one.

Masks, Hand Sanitizers, and Serving Spoons

Wear your mask all the time when not actually eating or drinking. Though many restaurants promulgate a rule that one may be always unmasked when seated, this exposes the waitstaff and passing pedestrians to extra danger. So wear the mask as often as possible when not chewing a bite or taking a sip of a drink.

Bring hand sanitizer with you and clean your hands before sitting down. Sometimes restaurants provide hand sanitizer on the table along with ketchup, salt, and pepper, but this is not always the case. When other guests are eating from a common vessel (e.g., a big bowl of coleslaw), make sure a spoon is provided that everyone can use to serve themselves. One diner I know brings several serving spoons along with her, and plops one in each bowl as soon as it arrives when the restaurant fails to do so.

A single marble topped table outdoors on the sidewalk with two chairs and two place setting and a bottle of sanitizer.
Some restaurants thoughtfully provide hand sanitizer at the table. Use it often.
Robert Sietsema/Eater

If you are about to enjoy a meal in which everyone has their individual plates, tasting the food of others is still okay, as long as a perfectly clean spoon is used before the diner who ordered the plate digs in. If this is too confusing, it’s acceptable to make a rule that each person eats only from their own plate.

The safety of the serving staff is of primary importance. Once again, that means masking up when orders are taken by the waitstaff, when dishes or beverages are brought to the table, when the busboy arrives, and when the check is presented at the end of the meal. When you see a restaurant staff member approaching the table, put on the mask.

Keep your mask where it’s easy to grab and won’t get contaminated (like maybe in your lap). Placing it directly on the table is not a good idea. Not only could other diners come in contact with it, but the mask is likely to blow onto the pavement with the first stiff breeze.

Tipping

Since the waiter’s job is now much more demanding, complicated, and even dangerous, leave a larger tip. Twenty-five percent is a good benchmark these days. But the tip should be proportionately higher in inexpensive restaurants. As an example: if an $8 diner breakfast comes with complete service, including fill ups on your coffee cup, leave a fiver.

You may pay with a credit card or cash, since neither is considered a vector of virus transmission, but you may want to sanitize your hands after using either method. Many waiters appreciate a cash tip, in which case the payment may be hybrid. If cash is involved in the transaction, though, make sure the waitstaff sees you leave it, or even better, deliver it directly into their hands. If you don’t, it may be blown away or taken by an opportunistic passerby.

Bad Weather

Be prepared for weather-related circumstances. As the evening progresses, it will likely get colder, so you may need to don a sweater or jacket, and think about bringing a personal umbrella, too. If it rains, pray that the tent, awning, or umbrella above you is adequate.

What if your shelter isn’t adequate? A squall with the rain pelting sideways will clear the tables of diners in short order, who will then run helter skelter toward any sort of shelter, sometimes without regard to their personal safety and the safety of others.

A big crowd of diners stand shivering under an awning during a sudden rainstorm with no social distancing.
A sudden squall can unsafely clear the tables.
Robert Sietsema/Eater

Remember, getting soaked is not the worst thing in the world, but as you sit down to your outdoor meal, look around and figure out where you might go during a severe thunderstorm. Scaffolded buildings or another business’s awning may do in a pinch. If you happen to have an umbrella with you, your options will be expanded. But stay away from situations in which you must crowd with others in a doorway or under an awning.

If you should happen to get caught in a table-clearing downpour, remember you are still on the hook for the cost of the meal; you are not allowed to ghost, no matter how serious the weather. This may involve approaching the greeter or waiter and requesting a bill after the storm has abated, or even the next day, depending on the seriousness of the weather. Even though your outdoor meal may end in meteorological disaster, that doesn’t mean you can stick them with the bill. It’s not the restaurant’s fault.

Table Manners

Comportment of individual diners at the table was once called table manners, and these were actually taught by parents and even in schools. Some are new (like not taking a cellphone call during a meal), while some are age old (don’t slouch at the table or interrupt someone else during a conversation). A small subset of these rules have taken on increased urgency.

For example, cover your mouth when you cough, even if you’re wearing your mask. Turning away from the table and coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm is the most effective way to limit spread of germs. Don’t cough into your cloth napkin or blow your nose in it. I’ve actually seen this done. Hopefully, the restaurant uses disposable napkins, but bringing tissues to a restaurant is not a bad idea. If you must blow your nose into a paper napkin, make sure you take it with you rather than leaving it on the table. If you have disease symptoms, don’t go out to dinner, even to dinner outside.

Another hoary rule is not to talk with your mouth full. This is doubly important now, since you don’t want to project fragments of food and spittle into the air. The same goes with drinking. And keep your voice quiet, since loud guffawing and yelling projects virus particles further.

Conclusion

Today’s outdoor dining is potentially a very pleasant experience, especially when the weather is fine and the food exceptional. But be prepared for any contingency, and arrange your backpack as if you were going on a longish hike in the woods. Tissues, hand sanitizer, a sweater, and an umbrella are now the accouterments of modern outdoor dining as surely as good food and good wine have always been.

Two women sit at a table in a plexiglass enclosure in the street.
Enjoy your outdoor meal!
Robert Sietsema/Eater

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater New York newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world