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Outdoor, socially distanced seating will help restaurants bring back staff and recover additional revenue in addition to takeout and delivery services. Each state has its own plan for reopening the economy with varying phases, with many going back and forth between phases as case numbers rise and fall.

Below we’ll explore what restaurant outdoor seating policies for COVID-19 can entail, what to do if your restaurant doesn’t currently have outdoor seating, and how to prepare longterm for social distance seating and dining. 

Restaurant Outdoor Seating Policies

Outdoor seating restrictions look different in each state and states are rolling out their phases on different timelines, so check here for the most up-to-date information for your location. Below is a list of the most common rules and restrictions for restaurant outdoor seating policies.

  • Tables must be at least six feet apart. In some states, they may be closer provided that a non-porous and easy-to-clean divider is placed in between the tables.
  • Restaurant staff and patrons are all required to wear masks. For guests, some states allow you to remove your mask the entire time you are seated at the table. Others are requiring masks to stay on unless you are actively eating or drinking.
  • Most states are allowing a maximum of 4-6 guests per table.
  • Some states are stating that bar seating is not allowed, even if it is set up outdoors and guests are sat six feet apart. This is due to the fact that they will still be eating and drinking in close quarters to the bartender and near drinks that are being prepared for other guests.
  • Reservations are required or strongly encouraged in most states to avoid large crowds of people standing around and waiting for a table.
  • Some states are requiring a temperature check on all restaurant staff and/or guests.

Creative Restaurant Outdoor Seating Ideas

If your restaurant doesn’t already have a designated patio or outdoor eating area, there are ways you can work around it in the space you do have or collaborate with your local state or city officials to utilize public space.

Use Your Restaurant’s Parking Lot

If you have a private parking lot or designated parking spaces for your restaurant, block them off to use as a designated outdoor seating area if possible. Bywater in Warren, RI is an example of one restaurant that is using their parking lot for seating. They partnered with a business across the street, a jewelry store that closes before dinner service begins, who is allowing Bywater patrons to park in their lot, and informed guests of the best street parking spots.


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Set Up on Sidewalks and in Alleys

If you have ample space, set up some tables on the sidewalk (check with your city or town first) or in an alley space between your building (provided that that isn’t where you keep the dumpster.) 


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Break Out the Food Trucks

If you don’t have outdoor space, but you do have a mobile kitchen for catering, put it to good use! Find an area to set up where you can set up some tables and chairs, a place that’s good for picnics, or somewhere that already has properly spaced tables available. As always, check with your local government to make sure it’s allowed before setting up.


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Expand to Your Rooftop

If you have the ability to reach the roof of your building and have permission from your landlord and/or local government, now is a good a time as any to build up that rooftop deck you’ve been considering. 


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Coordinate With Other Businesses to Petition Local Officials

If none of the above options are available to you because of limited space, coordinate with your neighboring businesses and ask local officials to block off streets to vehicle traffic so you can use the space for seating. This is the current plan for some streets in New York City and already in action in Miami.

Bringing Your Dining Room’s Ambiance Outside

Once you’ve designated an area for outdoor seating, don’t just throw down some tables and call it a day. Bring the elements of your indoor space outside and create the atmosphere your guests love. Troop in Providence enlisted their staff and local artists to transform the furniture on their patio to match the graffiti-art-covered walls inside and paired it with brightly colored rugs, sun covers, and umbrellas. They also expanded their seating beyond their original patio area into their designated parking spaces in their complex.


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Prepare for Extended Outdoor Seating Policies

There’s a real possibility that in-house seating for restaurants will still be limited once it’s no longer patio season, or that a second wave of COVID-19 will hit in the late fall or winter months. If you live in an area where it gets cold during these months, there are a few steps you can take to get more weeks out of your outdoor seating area, like building a covered structure over your seating area, investing in outdoor heating elements, and selecting furniture that can withstand any weather conditions. This should keep you prepared through the rest of the year if these stay in place.

Why is turnover is so high, what is the actual cost, and how do you fix it? Find the answers in our Staff Management ebook.

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Written by   |  
Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.
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