3 Major Cities Outline Rules for Cold Weather Outdoor Dining in the COVID Era

Since the advent of COVID-19, restaurants across the country have been digging deep into their creative arsenals to find new ways to keep doors open and kitchens producing, and cash registers ringing in a world in which the rules seem to change with each passing day. 

In addition to delivery and curbside pickup and drive-thru options, one of the most popular solutions has been a shift to outdoor dining in an effort to serve more people without overcrowding indoor dining rooms.

As fall inches its way towards winter, however, the prospect of dining outdoors becomes less and less attractive to restaurant patrons, and restaurateurs are once again faced with the need to creatively maintain their extra seating space without freezing out their customers. 

As a result, several cities have created COVID regulations around outdoor dining.


In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously set October 31 as the final day of outdoor dining in the city. On Sept. 25, however, the announcement was made that New Yorkers can continue to dine al fresco 365 days/year. In addition to this deadline removal, NYC’s popular Open Streets Program will also continue, allowing restaurants to take over specially designated city blocks for outdoor seating—without all the hassle of having to dodge oncoming traffic.

Of course, nothing of this sort comes without some caveats, and this is no exception. If restaurants taking advantage of this new ruling decide to set up enclosed spaces outdoors, they are still required to abide by the initial 25% capacity rule that applies to indoor dining. 

Also, for restaurants interested in providing heating for outdoor dining customers, beyond what may be emanating from their pasta alfredo, three options will be available: 

  • Electric radiant heaters (allowed on sidewalk and road seating)
  • Portable heaters fueled by propane (only allowed on sidewalks and regulated by the fire department)
  • Natural gas radiant heaters (allowed on sidewalks only)


Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health have laid out similar rules for those hoping to provide outdoor dining as the weather grows colder. 

Restaurants in Chicago will be allowed to set up tents to keep some of the windy parts of the Windy City away from their diners (50% of the sides must be open to allow airflow). According to the guidelines, these structures must not be set up in any way that might cause damage to the city’s streets or sidewalks. Officials also warned that structures larger than 400 square feet will require a permit from the city’s Department of Buildings.

The city’s rules specify that outdoor tables must be at least 6 feet apart, and they may seat no more than six people. 

Plastic domes may be used to separate tables as long as they provide “adequate circulation.” Diners would also have to be warned that these cones of silence would likely increase the risk of transmission among those seated inside them. 

Heaters may also be used in Chicago, provided they pose no fire hazard. They must also be properly ventilated and operated, and the guidelines specify that city officials must approve a plan to use any heating devices.

One more warning: City officials may shut down any outdoor operations in the case of inclement weather, such as snow and wind storms.


In Philadelphia, a survey of 1,115 people conducted by The Philadelphia Inquirer found that nearly 80% of respondents were not comfortable with indoor dining. When asked about outdoor dining, however, fully 90% said they were comfortable with it—especially if heaters, fire pits, and warm drinks were involved.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Philly restaurateurs welcomed recently introduced guidelines for winterizing outdoor restaurants. New outdoor dining guidelines for the City of Brotherly Love include:

  • Prefabricated tents and canopies with pliable material overhead can be erected without a building permit. A custom-built shelter with a roof and/or sides more than 48 inches high, however, does require a building permit.
  • All heated tents, as well as tents larger than 400 square feet, require a tent permit and inspection (as well as a $103 fee).
  • Any heaters used to warm outdoor dining spaces must be manufactured for outdoor use. Electric heaters must be installed at least three feet from combustible materials or five feet for propane/natural gas. 
  • Kerosene heaters are not allowed.
  • Heaters under tents are permitted via forced air ducts. 
  • Outdoor spaces enclosed by three or more walls and a roof will be subject to public health requirements for indoor dining, including the 50% occupancy restriction.

When coupled with tech solutions like mobile menu browsing, online ordering, and contactless payment, these outdoor dining adaptations can help keep restaurants serving customers—even when the colder temperatures hit.