As the weather turns colder and local restaurants scramble for creative ways to survive amid a worsening pandemic, some are turning to plastic bubbles.
A number of D.C. restaurants, like Del Mar at the Wharf and Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street, have winterized by installing enclosed plastic bubbles outside for diners to eat in. They’re definitely eye-catching, social media-friendly ways to encourage diners to eat in restaurants at a time when many are keeping their distance.
But are they safe?
Well, it depends on who you’re protecting yourself against.
Dr. Michael Knight, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, says the bubbles do protect dining parties from each other. “If it is one party [per igloo], then that is really separating or reducing the risk of any transmission from other diners that are outside of that enclosure,” he says.
But safety concerns can arise depending on who’s in that plastic bubble with you.
Knight says that the air inside of that bubble is essentially trapped, which could create something like a greenhouse effect. While research on transmission inside these plastic bubbles doesn’t yet exist, Knight is concerned about the potential heightened risk of transmission between patrons sitting inside of the bubble or dome, depending on its airflow.
“If there’s no airflow and it’s such a small enclosed space, the risk of transmission from you and someone else in that igloo is extremely high,” he says.
D.C. has issued some guidance on plastic domes. The city’s Streatery Winter Guide states that plastic domes can’t have more than six guests and must be cleaned and sanitized between parties. They also qualify as indoor dining and, therefore, are required to have five air changes per hour. Mayor Muriel Bowser also recently issued a 10 p.m. cut off for alcohol sales at restaurants.
Restaurants, meanwhile, say that they’re taking all the necessary precautions to make their bubbles safe.
Del Mar at the Wharf opened two “igloos” for diners last week and has plans to open a third soon. Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants, the restaurant group that owns Del Mar, will also open five igloos on Friday at Georgetown’s Fiola Mare, and several more on December 3 at Fiola in Penn Quarter.
With our enclosed, outdoor igloos, we’re keeping our dining spaces both splendidly seasonal and safe. After every use, we sanitize the igloos. Find wonderous views and a one-of-a-kind experience with us at The Wharf. Reserve your spot at Del Mar on Tock. https://t.co/AR9qi7xYHe pic.twitter.com/ewCwKxXAVz
— Del Mar (@dcdelmar) November 24, 2020
Each igloo has an electric heater and seats a maximum of six people. They cost $150 to $200 to rent, depending on the time of day, and don’t include food or drinks. There are no food or beverage minimums.
Jessica Botta, a spokesperson for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants, says the domes at Del Mar are already being booked steadily. “It’s definitely the way we are winterizing,” she says.
Del Mar — as well as Trabocchi’s other D.C. restaurants — all received winterizing grants from the city, which are intended help restaurants buy heating equipment for patio dining.
Trabocchi is approaching the cleaning and sanitizing of the igloos with rigor, Botta says. Each igloo has zippered flaps and windows to facilitate air flow. The door can be left open at the customer’s discretion.
Each reservation is spaced 30 minutes to an hour apart while igloos are opened and aired out. Staff are also using “foggers,” the leaf blower-like contraptions seen in a video posted on social media earlier this week, with “hospital-grade and food safe disinfectant mist” to sanitize the bubbles.
Botta also says the restaurants are consulting with a medical concierge service on best safety practices. A sanitization company also comes to disinfect all indoor spaces, including igloos, twice a month, Botta says.
But restaurants themselves can only take so many precautions. While menus are hands-free, staff do have to go inside the igloos to serve food. (Masks are required for both diners and staff while interacting.)
There’s also no way to know if the guests themselves are being careful with their dining companions.
“We can ask our guests to follow recommendations of health care professions, [like dining] with the people in their immediate family or people that they are interacting with [in] their pod,” Botta says. “But we have no way of verifying that.”
Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street offers similar plastic bubbles to dine in. There is no rental fee for those.
Manager Corey Newman tells DCist/WAMU that they are sanitizing and using a similar “fogging gun” in between dining parties. Ted’s Bulletin owner Steve Salis told ABC 7 that they use hypochlorous acid in them, which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends as a disinfect against COVID-19.
But reservations there are offered more or less back to back, says Newman, particularly during the brunching hours when they are most popular.
DCist/WAMU reached out to Ted’s Bulletin to further clarify steps taken to sanitize its bubbles, but did not receive a response by press time.
Both Del Mar and Fiola Mare plan on having their bubbles available throughout the winter, though Botta acknowledges there may be days that it will just be too cold. “It will vary depending on the person,” she says, “[But] we could reach a temperature where nobody’s going want to dine outside. It doesn’t matter how many space heaters you could have.”