From picnics to restaurant patios, here's what science says about eating al fresco right now.

Karla Walsh
July 13, 2020
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Getty / Jon Lovette

3.2 million: The number of positive coronavirus cases in the U.S., a number which is rising to the tune of 50,000 to 60,000 per day this week. That means that nearly 1 out of every 100 Americans has taken a test and received positive results since January—and many more have likely had the virus asymptomatically and never knew.

It's clear that this virus is sticking around for a while, and as a result (and to attempt to slow the spread) we're adjusting everything from the way we work to how we exercise to what we eat. Earlier this week, we dove into the topic of indoor restaurant dining during the pandemic, which also made us wonder: Is it safe to eat outside during the coronavirus pandemic?

To help us all understand the relative risk of normal daily or weekly activities, the Texas Medical Association has released a new coronavirus risk chart to rank 37 common activities, from opening mail to visiting an amusement park. Going to a bar, going to a worship service with 500 or more people and attending a stadium sports event or large concert rank as the riskiest. On the flip side, opening the mail, pumping gas and ordering restaurant takeout are least risky.

Transmission of the coronavirus is estimated to be 19 times more likely in indoor settings than outdoor ones. Eating indoors at a restaurant has a moderate-high risk (right around getting a haircut and traveling by plane). Slightly lower, on the moderate risk level, is attending a backyard barbecue and sharing dinner at someone else's house (on par with going to a beach or shopping at a mall).

Essentially, what this chart and CDC experts tell us, everything we do beyond staying home by ourselves or with our "quaran-team" is higher risk. But no one expects us, especially those who aren't at high risk for complications, to stay home and isolate until every human is immunized. So it's a matter of being aware of the relative risk level of all activities, then deciding what your personal level of risk tolerance is.

The verdict on dining outside on a restaurant patio or joining in the fun at a backyard barbecue or group picnic is very situation-specific. If you're at high risk or live with someone who is, it's probably not worth it. But you should be fairly safe to eat outside if …

  • Everyone can keep their distance (at least 6 feet between each family or restaurant table)

  • The party size is limited

  • The gathering time is fairly short (longer gatherings carry a higher risk)

  • Every guest is fairly certain or positive they haven't been exposed

  • All are masked when not eating

  • Guests wash hands often, including before and after eating

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDCWHO and their local public health department as resources.