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Winter dining on Long Island: Answering the biggest coronavirus safety questions

Igloos and private greenhouses are among the many

Igloos and private greenhouses are among the many ways restaurants are getting creative as the temperatures drop and the pandemic restrictions tighten. Newsday's Faith Jessie visited ITA Kitchen in Bay Shore, H20 Seafood & Sushi in Smithtown and Danford's in Port Jefferson. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

Since March, Long Island diners have had to deal with the fear, isolation and boredom bestowed by COVID-19. Add to that no small amount of confusion.

In terms of regulation, New York State is the primary actor here, although many state guidelines are derived from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other guidelines are the province of Nassau and Suffolk counties, and the hundreds of overlapping towns, villages and hamlets that make up Long Island’s government. It’s not easy for either restaurateurs or diners to know exactly who is responsible for regulating what.

Take, for example, City Cellar in Westbury. Chef-partner Michael Abbiatello said he follows all state-mandated regulations and keeps his eyes peeled for visits from the State Liquor Authority, but it is the Nassau County Health department that has inspected his restaurant four times since March. "They were mostly concerned with the spacing of tables and whether staff was wearing masks," he said. He has not been knowingly visited by anyone from the Town of North Hempstead and it was the Village of Westbury fire marshal that inspected the outdoor tent before Nassau County would issue a permit for it.

Nor can the medical community issue advice that will protect you 100% from getting infected. "Nothing we do is entirely without risk," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious diseases expert at Northwell Health in Manhasset. "If you are going out," he said, "you are having to rely on an environment that seems safe. Ultimately, these become personal decisions."

In order to help you navigate those decisions, we’ve compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked dining questions which, given experts' ever-evolving understanding of the virus, you can take with a grain of salt.

How can diners assess the relative risks of dining inside vs. dining outside, and all the variations between?

"Start with the premise, anything you do outside is better than anything you can do inside, with respect to COVID," said Dr. Hirschwerk. "After that, you need to factor in the other things we know that lower the risk of infection: maintain social distancing, avoid crowds, wear a mask."

Can you minimize the risks if you decide to dine indoors?

Hirschwerk, who has not dined inside a restaurant since March, suggested that you check the rate of infection in the community you are dining in. "And if you’re going to dine indoors, the smaller the group the better." Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of health care epidemiology at Stony Brook University Hospital advised "limiting your dining companions to people who are as close to your bubble as possible. There’s a difference between eating out with someone you’re sharing a house with and someone who has just come from Florida."

Does the "six-feet" rule refer to distance between tables or between chairs at adjacent tables? Do partitions reduce the requirements for socially distant tables?

State guidelines say both indoor and outdoor tables must be separated from other tables by a minimum of six feet in every direction. If that is not feasible, physical barriers, at least five feet in height, must be erected. Counties and towns may require that the six feet be measured between chairs and not tables.

What are the regulations for outdoor dining tents? When does a tent become a room?

The state distinguishes only between indoor and outdoor spaces. An outdoor space can have a temporary or fixed cover (like an awning or roof) but the cover must have "at least two open sides for airflow." If you are in a tent with one or no open sides, the state considers it an indoor space that must follow the indoor rules. At City Cellar, Abbiatello said that when he enclosed his patio in a tent this fall, he lost some capacity but that, otherwise, it now functions as a second indoor dining room. "It's six feet between tables either way."

Are there any ventilation standards for closed tents?

This is a gray area since, unlike restaurants, tents do not have to pass rigorous health and safety regulations. Dr. Donelan suggested that whether you are dining inside a restaurant or in a tent, "the important thing is ‘air changes per hour’ — how much air is being circulated and how much of that air is new." The more sides a tent has open, the better, she said. And, somewhat counterintuitively, ventilation may well be better inside a restaurant than in a closed tent.

Are there any rules governing heaters inside tents?

The state cedes that power to counties, towns and villages. On Long Island, it is the individual fire marshals in each town and village who inspect tents and approves permits for their use. That’s why one restaurant’s tent might be allowed to have propane heaters, another’s might not.

What about individual igloos, bubbles and greenhouses?

These temporary structures are considered indoor spaces if they do not have two sides open. Either way, however, restaurants need to follow state-issued guidance on cleaning and disinfecting. Mirabelle in Stony Brook recently set up one igloo that accommodates up to six diners, all from the same party. Thus far, there hasn’t been more than one "igloo seating" per night but Mirabelle’s protocol is that after a group leaves, all surfaces are wiped down with disinfectant and then the space is treated with an electric sanitizing fog machine.

Are there any new regulations governing restaurant ventilation systems since the pandemic?

Not really. The state advises that "responsible parties should increase ventilation with outdoor air to the greatest extent possible."

What about restaurant bars?

On Long Island (but not in NYC), the state allows restaurants to operate bars provided customers are seated and there’s at least six feet between parties. Bar staff should also keep at least six feet away from customers, "when possible." If you order an alcoholic beverage, you must also buy some food to go with it, but "businesses may serve soft drinks without an accompanying food purchase."

Do restaurants have to disclose when an employee or a customer tests positive?

Some businesses announce on Facebook that an employee has tested positive; others shut down temporarily with no explanation. Whether it’s an employee or a customer, the responsibility for contact tracing falls to the county health authorities, not the restaurant. The state publishes extensive guidelines for disinfecting after someone has tested positive, but there is no requirement that the restaurant inform the public. And while restaurants are encouraged to "maintain a log of every person, including workers and vendors, who may have close or proximate contact with other individuals at the work site," the log excludes customers.

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