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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

What Happens To Outdoor Dining As The Weather Turns Colder?

outdoor heater
Jennifer Merritt
An outdoor heater sits on the patio at Keystone Bar & Grill on Hyde Park's Erie Avenue.

Ah, fall, the season of pumpkins, falling leaves and crisp, cool breezes. But it's those cold winds that have restaurant and bar owners worriedly eyeing their calendars and seating arrangements.

With the novel coronavirus still a threat, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating are setting up their patio heaters or looking to purchase them. The city of Cincinnati is looking into the availability of outdoor heaters - most commonly, the tall kind that resemble a lightpost with a shade on top to deflect heat downward. 3CDC tells WVXU it's purchased them from Amazon in the past without problems. Downtown eateries Crown Republic Gastropub and Lostani were able to pick up six recently with no problem by ordering from Costco.

However, there are concerns supplies may begin running low. A customer service representative with online retailer Patio Living tells WVXU it sold out of the heaters in August and early September though they're still listed as available online. The company declined to comment.

Joe Lanni, president of Thunderdome, a restaurant group with 43 locations in Cincinnati and elsewhere, reports its properties have heaters from year's past and doesn't anticipate any problems getting more.

"We have a couple of pretty reliable suppliers who have told us they can get them for us," he says. "So at this point we do feel that we'll be able to get as many as we need."

Businesses also have to weigh the financial concerns. Jim Moehring owns The Holy Grail at The Banks. He owns five outdoor heaters and is consulting with an electrician about adding overhead electric heaters. He had until last Friday to decide on the electric option, he said, in order to get them in enough time. He's worried the cost of running overhead heaters will be more than he can afford.

"I now have my plumber who is also going to look into getting an overhead gas line run outside," he says. "Ultimately, we may just end up going with the propane heaters that we have."

The thing about outdoor heaters, though, is they likely aren't a viable solution for the winter.

"Unless you really go out and spend the money on tenting, it's not going to work under 40, 45, 50 degrees anyway," says Moehring. "And even then, if it's 20 degrees outside and you can make it 50 or 55 degrees 'inside,' are people really going to want to eat at that point out there or even sit around for the night? I don't see that happening."

Joe Lanni agrees, saying outdoor heaters aren't a big part of Thunderdome's winter plan.

"I don't think anyone is going to get a bunch of them because when it gets cold-cold, it doesn't matter. You're not going to have a bunch of outdoor seating. These are only going to help in that 'shoulder season' - call it 50 degrees or warmer."

Instead, they're focusing on indoor seating arrangements, barriers to separate patrons, curbside food pick-up options, and sales blitz options. In Ohio, locations are required to have six feet of distance between tables

"We're concerned," he says. "Outdoor dining has been great for us and has allowed us to remain at or near capacity. I hope that we progress to the point where Gov. DeWine feels that it's safe for us to increase capacity inside the restaurants."

In particular, he'd like to see the restriction on operating hours - alcohol sales end at 10 p.m. and locations must close by 11 p.m. - rolled back. It's unclear if expanded outdoor dining regulationsapproved by the city of Cincinnati in May will be extended. WVXU is seeking comment.

In Kentucky, places can operate at 50% capacity. Covington recently extended its order allowing outdoor seating through Jan 2, 2021.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.