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Portland restaurants winterizing outdoor dining

"Invest now or slowly lose your business," Olympia Provisions co-owner Nate Tilden said. COVID is spiking, as we all know. There's no real end in sight."

PORTLAND, Ore — While chillier weather brings more Oregonians indoors, restaurants and bars still want customers to enjoy outdoor dining throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many business owners are getting creative to make people comfortable.

Olympia Provisions Public House expanded seating into the parking lot earlier this summer. The owners rented a tent and heaters to cover tables for the winter months.

"The Oktoberfest feeling of being in a tent with a stein of beer and handmade sausage - we want that to go all winter long," co-owner and restaurateur Nate Tilden said.

But they want to do it safely, recognizing outdoor dining may not be ideal on a blustery winter day.

"Wear your jacket, wear your sweater. Be ready to be outside," Tilden said. "We want people to be dry and as warm as they can be, while being as safe as possible."

Places sticking mostly to outdoor dining through the winter invested in tents, heaters and ambience. Olympia Provisions Public House, for example, doesn't have a large enough indoor dining room to comply with state requirements or create a safe atmosphere for customers and staff. 

"I think [people] will come. So far it's been great. We've had a few cold days and people definitely come out," Tilden said.

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Other businesses got street or sidewalk permits through the city's popular Winter Healthy Businesses Program, including Silver Dollar Pizza on Northwest 21st Avenue. Owner Sam Macbale said they would struggle without one, although they also allow people inside. 

"It's helping us tremendously. Tremendously. It's just creating a different atmosphere," Macbale said.

They covered the patio with plastic and strung it with lights and greenery. Soon, they'll have heaters too.

"A tent is like you're inside and closed in," Macbale said. "This is like a garden with plants and lights and you feel like you're sitting outside in a garden."

Popular joints on Northwest 13th Avenue in the Pearl District got creative in order to survive; River Pig, Two Wrongs and Papi Chulo's have covered, enclosed tents with at least one side open, as well as heaters and decorations. 

The Portland Bureau of Transportation allowed restaurant owners to block off Northwest 13th Avenue at Hoyt Street earlier this year to create a street plaza.

Some bars and restaurants there spiced up their outdoor dining tents for spooky season.

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"The name of the game has just been being nimble. And being able to diversify and, you know, being able to offer the experience and service and food people know us so well for," said co-owner Jamal Hassan of Sesame Collective, which owns Mediterranean Exploration Company.

Along with now opening up a few tables inside, Mediterranean Exploration Company covered and heated its street plaza.

"To block the wind and block the rain, of course," Hassan said. "We've got it heated to make it feel more warm and comfortable. We've got some lights and some plants. We do have one side open, so there is a lot of air flow and there's opportunity for air to be refreshed."

These setups beg the question: Are enclosed tents any safer than being inside?

The metro area's public health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines says there aren't studies on that but it comes down to ventilation.

"Anything that boosts air circulation and what we call air exchanges, where the air gets swapped out, is going to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission," Dr. Vines told KGW. 

Vines says eating in a three-sided tent has better ventilation that eating inside in a small restaurant. She noted even opening a window while inside makes for better ventilation.

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"Part of it really comes down to what our guests feel comfortable with and where they want to eat," Hassan added.

Many places won't be 100% full - or even close - this winter. But they feel the tents, heaters, benches, tables, flooring and decorations are well worth the investment.

"Invest now or slowly lose your business. COVID is spiking, as we all know. There's no real end in sight," Tilden said. "Without this it would be a lot harder to make it."

Business owners KGW spoke with say they're feeling more optimistic now that they have temporary structures in place. They've seen many Portlanders excited to eat out and weather the colder temperatures and elements.

"[I'm] feeling optimistic. I have to be," Tilden said. "We're small business owners. It's either be optimistic or lock it all down and run for the hills."