Eating in A Tent in the Winter

A local eatery trying to make it work in 2020.

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of meeting a friend for dinner. She is a teacher, and coupled with my Covid, we had not seen each other since August! She had been out to dinner once already in the outdoor tents that have been constructed around the city. The mayor of Chicago and the governor of Illinois have shut down indoor dining. As a work around, outdoor dining was erected throughout the cities and suburbs. This was excellent in the summer. Streets were closed, different neighborhoods had beautiful set ups for socializing and enjoying a meal. Although it was not easy, for many restaurants, I believe it helped them sustain their business. Not all could put up expensive seating, not all had available street or sidewalk space, but I suppose that is a post for a different time.

However, now it is winter in Chicago. No one is allowed to dine inside restaurants. The restaurants that could, have built tents and purchased outdoor heaters. Certain neighborhoods with a lot of restaurants have worked together and created shared dining spaces like the photo above. This is where we were dining on Tuesday. The Christmas music was playing, it was festively decorated, staff and patrons wore masks as required, and it almost felt normal. Until we both started laughing realizing we were eating in a tent in Chicago in December.

This approach is great when the weather is 40 degrees – which it happened to be on Tuesday. For those who live in Chicago, you know the average temps in January and February are usually in the single digits, and wind chill drops things as low as 50 below zero. Is anyone going to eat in a tent when it is 50 below outdoors? This is not a viable, long term option. I am sure everyone knows this. Like most of pandemic life, everything is just a Band-Aid waiting for the next catastrophe.

There were many times while talking and catching up that one of us would start laughing. We would look around and ask each other, “Why can’t we just eat inside”? I assumed we were spaced “6 feet apart”. Maybe they could serve more patrons? But they shared the tent between two restaurants to save costs. I appreciate that for many restaurants that this might be enough to keep them afloat. I don’t see this having a lot of longevity in the winter in Chicago – it is just so very cold.

The next night was my friends birthday. Her husband was taking her to her favorite steak place to celebrate. The weather was rainy and cold and they were seated in their tent eating. Since we are allowed to use the restaurant bathrooms, my friend’s husband joked that he should take his meal in there and enjoy it in the dry and warm conditions. This is not sustainable – like so much of what we have erected for 2020.

This is not really a judgement about open or closed restaurants. As I have mentioned before, there really isn’t enough reliable data anywhere to judge how and where the spread is coming from. In my own opinion? Open the restaurants in some capacity. These tents are so strange. They argue they ventilate air better, but after sitting in one I am not very convinced of that. I did see that one side of the tent had the flaps open, and there seemed to be some sort of tubular structure that circulated air. Couldn’t we just open windows in the restaurants?

The restaurant industry has been hit so hard this year. The impact is so far reaching – just like many industries that we don’t give much thought to unless we work in them. I will keep ordering take out. I will keep eating in these creative structures. I don’t want to wake up in 2021 or 2022 and realize the only place to eat is a chain fast food restaurant. I don’t think anyone else wants that either.

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