Igloos at HalfSmoke's Winter Wonderland
Igloos at HalfSmoke's Winter Wonderland Credit: Rey Lopez

Jesty G., a server and bartender with 10 years of experience, was let go from a Northern Virginia restaurant last week that has “winter globes” where visitors can sit. He says his former employer never asked how servers felt about entering the globes to serve customers. “We were left with no choice,” he says. “A handful of us gave our concerns to the owner, but they prioritized their business over their employees.” 

He calls the globes “COVID incubators.” “It leaves servers much more susceptible to catching this virus while we are out here with no financial support,” Jesty says. “Having no regard for employees broke the camel’s back for me and I had to limit my availability, which led to them letting me go.” 

Despite his concerns, Jesty doesn’t think the government should ban enclosed outdoor structures. “The city should stop banning things and come up with a proactive plan that protects businesses and employees,” he argues. “We are all trying to survive out here. But with lack of response from the government and financial support from losses, the last thing they need to do right now is ban them.”

Restaurants in D.C. are scrambling for ways to stay open. With indoor dining paused tomorrow through January 15, outdoor dining and takeout are the only ways to make money. Owners don’t know if or when they’ll see an infusion of cash from the District’s Bridge Fund or the next round of the Paycheck Protection Program. Some see the current operating environment as untenable and are hibernating until the spring. Others are trying to coax diners out of their homes by making their outdoor spaces inviting even as temperatures drop below freezing after sundown. 

The most well-endowed venues are springing for igloos, domes, globes, or greenhouses. These posh pods may dazzle on Instagram, but they’re questionable when it comes to safety. Del Mar, Bresca, Ted’s Bulletin, Rakuya, HalfSmoke, Fiola Mare, Next Whisky Bar, and Albi have all experimented with them.

Diners risk contracting COVID-19 if they link up with people outside of their immediate household to spend a couple of hours inside a bubble eating and drinking with their masks off. One can actually observe droplets of hot breath fog up the side paneling. Plenty has been written about the danger to customers, but what about staff that enter to take orders and drop off food and drinks?  

While there’s much we still don’t know about how COVID-19 spreads, one thing most health experts agree on is that poorly ventilated spaces are riskier than well ventilated ones. That’s why outdoor dining has been permitted ahead of indoor dining in phased reopening processes across the country and D.C. 

The District categorizes enclosed structures like igloos as outdoor dining, so long as they only hold one table that seats up to six people. Restaurants must sanitize them between parties, but that’s the only safety measure on the books. There are no air-change requirements like there are for tents, according to the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture and the city’s updated outdoor dining guide. Some of these structures have better ventilation than others, such as doors and windows that zip open.

“We don’t have a lot of data on the safety on these sorts of buildings because they are something people just started doing with the winter,” says Dr. David W. Dowdy, an associate professor in the epidemiology department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “With airborne diseases, it’s all about how much air is being exchanged. If these sorts of enclosures have open windows or doors—something that allows the air to circulate through—that dramatically reduces the risk relative to a fully enclosed space where it’s staying closed except for when someone is opening the door to come in and go out.”

Restaurant and bar workers, like owners, are under a tremendous amount of stress as they try to work enough hours to pay their rent and feed themselves. Jobs are scarce and navigating the city’s outdated unemployment benefits portal has been nightmarish from the start. Desperate to support themselves and their families, they’re submitting to taking risks even when they’re afraid for their safety. Three hospitality industry employees actually say they’d feel more at ease serving customers inside restaurants than outside in igloos. 

Nial Rhys Harris Garcia, who primarily works as a sommelier, took care of customers inside igloos at the Watergate Hotel in 2017, long before the pandemic. Washingtonian labeled them “rich people things” at the time. They still are. The first restaurant to erect igloos during the pandemic was a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in San Francisco that wanted to protect diners from people experiencing homelessness.

“I had mixed feelings,” Garcia says of staffing the Watergate Hotel’s igloos years ago. “I thought they were super cute. They were great for making money for the place and for the satisfaction of the guest. For staff, it was not always the easiest to execute.” 

He says employees would often call out sick to avoid working on the roof where the igloos were during cold or inclement weather. The Watergate Hotel, according to Garcia, offered employees some winter weather gear like jackets. He thinks restaurants should be doing the same now, much like how they’re providing protective gear to staff.

Garcia has more to say about places that have igloos now that COVID-19 has its grips on D.C. “For me there’s not as much ventilation inside them,” he says, adding that it’s been difficult to compel diners to put their masks back on when employees approach the table. “I don’t think they’re safe for staff members to go in and out unless there are stricter regulations like having windows open or opening the door frequently … You’re basically doing indoors outdoors because it’s enclosed.”

The Spain native, who currently works at Xiquet by Danny Lledó, also says banning the outdoor enclosed structures would be tricky because so many revenue-ravenous restaurants are relying on them to stay open and pay staff. If the demand from diners is there, it clears the way for igloos to become a necessary evil in the eyes of owners. He thinks indoor dining with strict and severe capacity limits is safer than the igloos because restaurants have better ventilation systems and air filters. 

Laurin Beasley also used to work at a restaurant that had igloos before the pandemic. She’s been a server for seven years and a bartender for about six months. Back then she thought the enclosures were a charming way to winterize. “I can’t imagine feeling comfortable doing that now,” she says.

“As someone who has recently been furloughed for the second time this year due to the mayor’s new restrictions, I am all for innovation and restaurants finding ways to stay operational during this time,” Beasley continues. “However, I don’t think it should be at the expense of waitstaff.”

Beasley agrees with Garcia about indoor dining feeling safer. “Walking into a heated bubble full of recycled air to serve food and drink seems arguably more dangerous than serving indoors where there is, at the very least, circulation,” she says.

A third restaurant worker shares this stance. “The igloos and similar ‘bubbles’ are extremely dangerous for staff,” says a longtime D.C. server who requested anonymity for job security reasons. We’ll call her Abby. “They are nothing more than smaller indoor enclosures with poorer air circulation than regular indoor spaces … Knowing how the virus spreads through droplets, it should be obvious to anyone that smaller enclosed spaces are more dangerous.”

Abby also points out that it’s been tough to get customers to wear their masks when they’re not actively eating or drinking, as the District requires. “We are frontline workers working with an unmasked public in small enclosed spaces while making less money because it’s slower than ever,” she says.

The restaurant where Abby currently works doesn’t have igloos. “I would have a hard time accepting working in those little things considering I have older family living at home with me now,” she says, adding that she’s frustrated that restaurant workers aren’t closer to the front of the line for the vaccine.

“Bubbles being used are really just another symptom of a huge problem,” Abby continues. “Restaurant staff are not being protected and are risking their health and the lives of themselves and their family for less money. True outdoor seating is incredibly difficult to achieve in the winter, so places are basically just building ‘inside outside’ spaces to get around it. Personally I think we need to shut down all dining, but only with robust monetary relief for workers and businesses.”

“It’s difficult for me to say for certain whether these are higher or lower risk than a moderately crowded indoor restaurant,” Dowdy says of workers’ claims that indoor dining would be safer. There are lots of factors are at play. “If you have a well ventilated, open, vaulted ceiling sort of restaurant where you’re doing a good job of maintaining distance between different tables, that’s likely a lower risk that these sorts of enclosures. If you’re talking about a highly crowded, contained small space with 50 people packed in, that might be higher risk.”

There are some ways to make igloo dining safe and more amenable to anxious staff with valid concerns. Servers can leave food outside of the structures on trays for diners to retrieve, thus avoiding direct interaction. 

“I think that if people want to continue to dine out, they need to accept that it looks different than before,” Beasley says. “A masked, gloved server handing you your food and cocktails through a little window is a small price to pay to be able to have date night.”

Other restaurant workers City Paper spoke with say they feel much more comfortable with this approach. Someone still has to step in to sanitize the bubble after each use, but at least no one’s actively breathing inside.

“If you can arrange that and have some sort of contactless ordering system so the waitstaff never have to enter the enclosure at the same time other people are in it, that to me feels like a reasonably safe thing to do,” Dowdy says, while also emphasizing the importance of both patrons and employees wearing masks when they interact.

Garcia has a suggestion that minimizes such interaction. “Igloos could work well with packages,” Garcia says. Diners would book them in advance, choose their food and drinks, and everything would be waiting for them inside when they arrive. “There will be no service. That’s a perfect example of how to work with igloos without too much risk for your staff.” 

At least one restaurateur is catching on to employee concerns. HalfSmoke opened a “winter wonderland” in a Shaw parking lot complete with “12 cozy igloos” this week. Washingtonian reported that “staff and customers can say whether they’re comfortable interacting inside the igloos (which have raised safety concerns), or if they prefer no-contact service outside.”

City Paper confirmed this with owner Andre McCain, who notes that he selected igloos with four points of ventilation. “We’re trying to find out ways to accommodate them,” he says. “In this COVID world, the staff are our customers in a way. We need them equally to survive.”