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Baltimore-area restaurants are setting up enclosed tents for outdoor dining, but is it any better than sitting inside?

Tents are set up on Thames Street outside restaurants and bars in Fells Point to provide physical distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. October 31, 2020.
Tents are set up on Thames Street outside restaurants and bars in Fells Point to provide physical distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. October 31, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

A white tent encloses the parking spaces outside a restaurant on The Avenue in Hampden. In Fells Point, such structures spread down Thames Street, offering diners shelter from the elements. In Perry Hall, individual “igloos” are set up for customers.

As cold weather approaches and COVID-19 cases continue to surge, some Baltimore-area restaurants are setting up tents to make it more comfortable for customers to sit outside.

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But is it actually safer than eating indoors?

The answer is usually no, said Dr. Morgan Katz, an assistant professor and infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. She recommends that restaurant owners who set up tents keep two sides open to allow for ventilation.

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“That is not the same as having outdoor [dining] with an open breeze," she said, "but it is a compromise.”

Baltimore’s health department treats any tent with four walls like an indoor space, spokesman Adam Abadir said.

In response to rising COVID-19 cases, the city just tightened restrictions on dining, limiting venues to 25% of their usual capacity starting Thursday. Statewide, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan restricted capacity at 50% this week, down from 75%.

But, Katz said, when it comes to transmission of the coronavirus, outdoor tents that are closed on all four sides actually could be riskier than just eating indoors. That’s because enclosed restaurants have ventilation and air filtration systems that tents lack.

In Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, restaurant owner Patrick Dahlgren placed a tent in front of his restaurant Avenue Kitchen & Bar to seat customers.

Servers and customers enter through a 10-foot gap facing the restaurant, and another opening on the street side help provides ventilation. Inside sit four tables.

“I’m just loving the tent,” said customer Tiffany Richardson, who sat outside the restaurant on a warm Tuesday late afternoon, enjoying a meal with a friend.

The tent, she said, feels well-ventilated and comfortable; Richardson just wishes management would add a bar to the corner.

Dahlgren said he has been careful. The entire restaurant gets professionally disinfected every Friday. All staff wear masks and wash hands “a lot,” Dahlgren said. He’s planning to install plexiglass dividers between some tables indoors. The restaurant has remained open throughout the pandemic, and Dahlgren said none of his staff have gotten sick with COVID-19.

Even so, Dahlgren said he feels conflicted about the tent, one of many aspects of running a restaurant during the pandemic that can give a business owner high blood pressure.

“Trust me, it’s in my head that it’s basically, you’re making it like inside without airflow," he said.

But he worries about how he’ll stay in business — and keep people employed — without it.

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Another alternative to tents, Katz said, is to offer individualized domes or small tents, such as the greenhouses located outside Ampersea in Fells Point. The restaurant’s co-owner Kyle Smedberg set them up a few days ago; customers have now booked them up weeks in advance.

Still, at around $500 each from online retailer Wayfair, they’re a pricey investment, particularly considering the uncertain business climate as jurisdictions in Maryland weigh another shutdown.

Another issue? They’re not exactly weatherproof, Smedberg said. “If it’s raining heavy there might be a leak in the roof somewhere.”

Ampersea employees tuck them away each night to prevent them from landing in the Inner Harbor.

Other restaurants have reported their tents collapsing in bad weather.

“All three of my tents got destroyed,” said Dave Rather, who has set up tents at his Mother’s Grille branches in Baltimore, Timonium and Anne Arundel County. He has left the sides open, saying that otherwise, it defeats the purpose of sitting outdoors.

“People want to be outside," he said, "but if you have four sides on your tent to keep the heat in, then you keep the virus in.”

In Perry Hall, owners of Lib’s Grill have ordered eight see-through “igloos” where customers will be able to sit with other members of their households on the restaurant’s patio, soon to be decked out in Christmas gear.

General manager Dara Jefferson said the four-person structures will accommodate the majority of diners who still prefer to dine al fresco, even into the winter months. She cautioned that, although the restaurant has heat lamps outdoors, “I can’t say they’re going to be extremely heated.”

Staff also will need to disinfect and air out the igloos between use to reduce risk of coronavirus transmission, as health experts say coronavirus molecules can linger in the air.

In a brief this July, the World Health Organization wrote that reports of outbreaks in crowded indoor locales “have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, combined with droplet transmission, for example, during choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes.”

Katz encouraged people to size up restaurants they’re considering patronizing.

“Look at how they manage the entryway. Are they shoving people into a small area to wait for their table? Are they having people stand outside or have designated space for people to wait?” she said. “Those are the areas where potential transmission can occur.”

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