Outdoor Seating Best Practices for Restaurants During COVID-19

outdoor seating best practices for restaurants during covid

With each new phase of reopening the economy, there are new challenges for business owners. Many states are currently in a phase that allows dine-in for outdoor seating, which poses another obstacle for restaurants that don’t already have a patio or outdoor space. Below are some ideas on how to create an outdoor space for seating and how to prepare your restaurant as the economy reopens.

Best Practices for Socially Distanced Outdoor Seating

Below is a list of the most common rules and restrictions for restaurant outdoor seating policies, but be sure to read up on your local and state guidelines, as phases will differ across states, counties, and even cities or towns.

  • Tables must be at least six feet apart. In some states, they may be closer provided that a non-porous divider is placed in between the tables.

  • Restaurant staff and patrons must wear masks. Some states allow guests to remove their masks the entire time they are seated at the table. Others are requiring masks to stay on unless they are actively eating or drinking. We recommend keeping a supply of disposable masks on hand for guests who may forget to bring one or aren’t aware.

  • Most states are allowing a maximum of 4-6 guests per table. Some states are stating that bar seating is not allowed, even if it is set up outdoors and guests are sat six feet apart.

  • Reservations are required or strongly encouraged in most states to avoid large crowds of people standing around and waiting for a table.

  • Some states are requiring a temperature check on all restaurant staff and/or guests and readily available hand sanitizer.

Outdoor Seating Ideas for Restaurants

Utilize Your Parking Lot

Bywater in Warren, RI is using their parking lot for seating and partnered with a business across the street (a jewelry store that closes before dinner service begins) that is allowing Bywater patrons to park in their lot. The restaurant also keeps guests informed about the best street parking spots on social media.

Set Tables on the Sidewalk

If you have ample space on the sidewalk, set up some tables in front of your restaurant (check with your city or town first) or in an alley space between your building if it is clean and won’t obstruct any traffic.

Make Use of a Company Vehicle

If you’re short on outdoor space but do have a food truck or a catering vehicle, take the show on the road. Set up in a park or a street corner (once again, check with your city first about permits) and let your guests know via social media where you’re stationed for the day. If there’s room, bring some patio furniture in case customers want their food to stay, or try and find a park with picnic tables.

Expand to Your Rooftop

If you have the ability to reach the roof of your building and have permission from your landlord, now is as good a time as any to build up that rooftop deck you’ve been considering. Before you start building, think about how you can utilize the space beyond the summer months in case these restrictions last into the colder months, and build it out accordingly.

Coordinate With Other Businesses to Petition Local Officials

If none of the above options are available to you because of limited space, coordinate with your neighboring businesses and ask local officials to block off streets to vehicle traffic so you can use the space for seating. This is the current plan for some streets in New York City and already in action in Miami.

Bring Your Dining Room’s Ambiance Outside

Once you’ve designated an area for outdoor seating, don’t just throw down some tables and call it a day. Bring the elements of your indoor space outside and create the atmosphere your guests love with outdoor rugs, string lights, creative dividers, and other decor. You may also want to consider upgrading to a mobile restaurant POS to help your staff save time running back and forth inside to their stations.

Prepare for Extended Outdoor Seating Policies

There’s a real possibility that in-house seating for restaurants will still be limited once it’s no longer patio season. If you live in an area where it gets cold during these months, there are a few steps you can take to get more weeks out of your outdoor seating area, like building a covered structure over your seating area, investing in outdoor heating elements, and selecting furniture that can withstand any weather conditions to help get you through the winter.


Stephanie Resendes is the Content Marketing Coordinator at Upserve where she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.

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