Restaurants Are Bracing For Another Big Setback

Outdoor dining has been a rare bright spot this year for the people who run restaurants. Cities across the U.S. created more space for outdoor dining by allowing restaurants to set tables on sidewalks or streets (via ABC News). With the COVID-19 pandemic, people can gather more safely in outdoor spaces compared to indoor, according to infectious disease experts, because ventilation is much better (via CNN).

These efforts to help restaurants by expanding outdoor seating worked. Oxalis in Brooklyn needed to make some changes to its fine-dining experience, to make patio seating work for them, but New York's outdoor-dining program enabled the restaurant to break even (via Marketplace). That's considered a win during a year when restaurants have lost a total of $162 billion in sales through September (via National Restaurant Association). Restaurants that aren't fast-food chains have been hit especially hard, often fatally. As many as 85 percent of small, independent restaurants may close by the end of the year (via The Washington Post).

How cities are helping restaurants prepare for winter

For much of the country, unless you're in a place like Florida, Phoenix, or Southern California, the arrival of colder weather threatens to take away one of the few good things that happened to restaurants this year. Is there a way to keep outdoor dining going through the winter? If so, will customers even want to brave the chill?

The cold-weather cities of Washington, D.C. and Chicago have plans for maintaining outdoor dining through the winter. Washington D.C. is offering money to restaurants to help pay for heaters, propane, tents, and other equipment. In Chicago, the city held a contest, asking people to come up with creative ways to keep diners outdoors but keep them out of the city's notoriously cold and windy weather. Not everyone in Chicago is optimistic any of this will work — who's going to pay the bill to heat all these modular dining spaces the contest winners came up with (via Eater Chicago)? The solution for a few fortunate Chicago restaurants that have some money in the bank is closing for the next six months and coming back when the weather warms (via Block Club Chicago).

Outdoor dining won't save restaurants

In Detroit, another cold-weather city, the owner of Batch Brewing Company built an open-sided barn in his parking lot so he could seat people outdoors during the summer. He plans to enclose three sides of the barn with walls and add propane heaters for the winter (via Eater). He only hopes Detroiters will show up. After all, they're known for being hardy enough to grill outdoors in winter.

The National Restaurant Association said financial support from local governments is good, but still isn't enough. The association also wants to see another round of stimulus money, after the original Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), from the U.S. Congress and the president. With all the lawmakers distracted by the big election that's just days away, it's unclear when or even if federal support is coming (via The Hill). "Even in good weather, outdoor dining is not a solution," Niki Russ Federman, co-owner of Russ & Daughters in New York, told CNBC. "It's not even a Band-Aid. It's a desperate lifeline to hang on a little longer until there's actual relief." She had a harsh prediction in case some sort of federal bailout never comes. "With cold weather coming, with PPP money expiring, we are going to see a mass die-off of restaurants."