Here’s What You Need to Know Before Going to a Patio

Now that many restaurants have opened outdoor spaces, it's tempting to flock to a patio—but there are a few things to consider first

With provinces gradually rolling out their plans for reopening, many people across Canada are excited to start going out to enjoy patio drinks, Sunday brunch and all the other things we haven’t been able to do since quarantine started. However, it’s important to remember that, while things are improving and the number of new cases is gradually going down, the pandemic is still here—and reopening doesn’t mean that things are back to “normal.”

“Since provinces/territories are responsible for coordinating their own reopening plans, the stages are very regionally specific,” says Brittany Andrew-Amofah, senior policy and research analyst at Broadbent (and the host of FLARE’s weekly IGTV series Brittany Breaks It Down). “For most provinces/territories, Stage 2 involves reopening businesses primarily focusing on the use of outdoor space with new social distancing and safety protocols.”

These protocols fall on the responsibility of both restaurant owners and staff, as well as patrons who wish to visit. And while it’s understandable that people want to go out—we’ve been sheltering in place for three long months, and the weather is finally gorgeous!—it’s important to assess the risks to both yourself and others before you decide to hit that patio. (And, keep in mind that ordering takeout and eating your food in the park is another safe option that’s just as lovely!)

Here, everything you need to know about health and safety regulations for restaurants and food services, things you should consider before deciding to dine out, plus how you can make sure you stay safe and act respectful of restaurant staff.

Maintaining physical distance

Physical distancing is still required, which means restaurant staff must minimize contact with customers, and customers must be adequately spaced from other parties. Before ordering, keep in mind that you need to limit unnecessary interaction with staff, so try your best to order drinks, appetizers, mains, etc, all at once.

Most places will have markings on the floor to help maintain that minimum of two metres of distance between groups, as well as physical barriers between tables.

Sorcha King, a server in downtown Toronto, says that customers need to remember that their use of the space is now limited: “One of the new house rules is to avoid unnecessary movement in the restaurant. We’ve had a couple of people wander around whilst taking phone calls, so we’ve had to remind them that they must remain seated unless using the washroom.”

Many establishments will also have designated paths to the restrooms and ask that only one person at a time enter to use them. Keep in mind that staff are required to frequently clean every touchable surface in the washroom, so you’re not expected to put on a mask when you need to go, but it is still good practice to do so.

Respecting restaurant staff

With new health and safety procedures around food preparation in place, expect to wait longer to be seated and/or for your food to be served.

Since restaurants started to reopen, there have been tweets of people complaining about “crappy service.”

Before you think about making a complaint about your food taking too long (or that you can’t get your shredded cheese), be mindful of what the staff has to do. While some of us continue to work from home and have the option to only leave the house when we feel like it, restaurant workers have to risk their health in order to serve people dining out.

The COVID-19 cases in Canada may be much lower than in the US, but there’s still a power imbalance of uninsured restaurant workers having to go back to work during a global pandemic without a vaccine, and people who want to go out and drink their artisanal cocktails without taking precautions.

“I was very apprehensive about returning to work,” says King. “It was a real scramble to get ready for opening since the government gave little notice, so I wasn’t convinced the workplace could be made ‘safe’ in such a short time. Luckily, my manager is very supportive and called me personally to answer all my questions and reassure that my safety was a priority.”

Health checks and sanitization

“We check customers in at the door and take their details for contact tracing purposes,” says King, noting that you may be asked to leave your full name and phone number. Some restaurants are even temperature checking guests with contactless machines and recording their vitals.

In addition to restricting the number of people on site (workers and customers), restaurants are also required to sanitize shared workspaces and equipment, have employees thoroughly wash their hands and encourage customers to do the same—you may notice increased signage to this effect.

Most places will have hand sanitizer accessible—and many are requesting that customers apply some at check-in—but do bring some with you, just in case.

Payment and tipping

Leave the cash at home and bring your debit/credit card instead. While some restaurants have cash points inside, many are requiring patrons to pay at their table with debit or credit cards on wireless machines. If you’re with a group, keep in mind that splitting the bill multiple ways requires extra, unnecessary contact with your server.

Also, don’t forget to tip and, if you can, tip well. A lot of restaurant and food service workers had to take a pay cut due to reduced capacity, on top of having to work in these new conditions.

Consider what you are comfortable with

While guidelines and protocols are in place, every establishment is implementing them in their own way. “I recommend calling a restaurant beforehand and asking them what their protocols are,” says Andrew-Amofah. “I also recommend stopping by beforehand and assessing whether the distancing between tables and restaurant-goers is reasonable. The last thing you want is to be stuck on a packed patio.”

King also says to ask yourself what you are hoping to get out of the experience and have realistic expectations. “Consider what it is that you enjoy about dining out and decide whether it’s worth it for you,” she says. “If you really like to be waited on, and generally appreciate a high level of attentive service, I’m afraid that just isn’t possible right now. I know people are excited to see their friends and eat and drink together, but be self-aware for your own sake and of those around you.”

What it all boils down to: We are living in a *strange* time, so dining out will look and feel a lot different than you remember. If you do choose to go out, be kind to the staff, tip them well and don’t complain about the service being “crappy.” Do take precautions, and comply with the new rules—or just keep cooking at home and ordering take out.