Woman picking up food outside a small business restaurant

How to Do Business Outdoors Under COVID-19

6 min read • Jul 15, 2020 • Joe Kukura

America has been talking about reopening for months. But just as many cities and states were about to allow certain types of businesses to reopen, some then reversed course and postponed those plans as coronavirus cases started rising again. 

Yet one consistent characteristic of these on-again, off-again phased business reopenings is that cities and states are more comfortable allowing small businesses to operate outdoors. Outdoor operations with fewer customers is an ethical reopening plan where restaurants and bars can employ outdoor seating, or retail shops can use a curbside pickup model.

Your state and local government will have its own reopening guidelines, as technically there is no universal guidance on how to reopen safely. But the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a set of “Considerations for Restaurants and Bars” and their advice can also apply to retail stores. “These considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which businesses must comply,” the guidance says. So your local and state emergency rules will ultimately override any federal recommendations.

Most state and local municipalities are requiring face masks, 50% capacity, social distancing, or screening and temperature-taking. Of course, some business types like beauty salons are totally prohibited from reopening in certain areas. But many cities are allowing bars and restaurants to reopen outdoors, and other small business sectors can use these guidelines to reopen ethically and safely.

How to Manage COVID-19 Risk for Your Business

The CDC guidelines for managing risk are clear and easy to follow, spelling out 4 risk categories. You will, of course, want to operate as closely as possible to the Lowest Risk classification.

  1. Lowest Risk: Delivery service, curbside pickup or take-out, and drive-through service only.
  2. More Risk: All of the above, but also with on-site outdoor seating, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  3. Even More Risk: All of the above, but also with indoor seating, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  4. Highest Risk: All of the above, with tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.

While those recommendations are intended for bars and restaurants, they can be applied to other business types. In fact, it may be easier for other business types that can simply start an online store and do curbside pickup. But even so, there are still other crucially important safety guidelines to follow.

Cloth Face Coverings

You simply should not reopen without mandatory mask-wearing for customers and employees. Communities nationwide are insisting on cloth masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in case anyone is unknowingly infected and not showing any symptoms. The CDC says masks are most essential in workplaces where it may be difficult to maintain social distancing, though they do add that masks should not be worn by “babies and children younger than 2 years old” or “anyone who has trouble breathing.”

They also add advice on when to remove masks and how to wash cloth masks

Hand Washing and Respiratory Etiquette

Cleaning and disinfecting safely is now a matter of life or death if your business is going to reopen. Customers will come to expect hand sanitizer stations, and they’ll be likelier to return if you provide that amenity in an outdoor environment. 

You’ve probably learned a lot about how to wash your hands properly over these last few months, but the CDC has some workplace rules for when to wash your hands. They note that employees should always wash their hands before, during, and after preparing or serving food, and immediately after handling trash or using the washroom. 

Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces will be critical, even if you’re not doing table service. The odd phrase “respiratory etiquette” refers to covering all coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and washing hands immediately after a sneeze or a cough.

Signage and Messaging

Some cities are providing free signs to remind your customers that masks are required or to remain 6 feet apart. If you need these, the CDC is providing free COVID-19 signs for businesses that prompt mask wearing, social distancing, and food handling coronavirus safety. 

Spacing Customers 6 Feet Apart

It’s your responsibility to make sure your customers are distanced 6 feet apart. That’s easy for retailers doing curbside pickup, as you can just mark your sidewalk with tape or chalk to create a spacing system that customers are already used to. 

But restaurants and bars will need outdoor seating to operate legally in many states and cities. Quite a few of those are implementing new rules, and in some cases shutting down streets to create additional capacity for restaurant and bar seating.

Maintaining a Healthy Business Environment

The business environment you keep is not only a matter of customer safety but also employee safety. It would only take 1 positive test to completely disrupt your business and undermine employee morale. If an employee does test positive, there is a strict isolation protocol that employees should observe before returning to work. 

The CDC updates these guidelines from time to time, so check back on them occasionally. And be aware that some cities will reverse course and change these guidelines overnight, as New York City recently did with outdoor dining. But that’s not government ineptitude—that’s good government realizing there was too much risk in an original plan, so they wisely changed course. You’ll want to keep similar flexibility in reopening in the great outdoors while making sure you’re not taking great risks.


Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.