COVID-19: Smoke-free outdoor dining

As the death, disease, and financial devastation wrought by COVID-19 begins to recede in some communities, restaurants are eager to re-open in ways that will protect customer and employee health while re-establishing profitability. And diners are salivating at the thought of savoring their favorite meals and supporting the restaurant community.

“Smoke-free outdoor dining promotes healthy air and capitalizes on the intensive sanitizing efforts already implemented by restaurants to protect the public,” said Jennifer Gill, Program Supervisor, Tobacco Control Program, for Vista Community Clinic. “Restaurants have banished odors from secondhand smoke and toxic residue left by thirdhand smoke. Why bring these dangers back at a time when breathing clean air is more vital than ever?”

Early studies suggest that smokers who develop COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are 14 times more likely to need intensive treatment compared with nonsmokers. Doctors in California are seizing this moment to highlight the connection between COVID-19 and smoking as another reason people should quit.

California public health agencies are incorporating information about the link between smoking and the coronavirus into their social media and public outreach messages, building on a 30-year legacy of aggressive anti-smoking campaigns and policies.

The state was the first to ban smoking on airplanes and in restaurants and bars, adding a long list of other public spaces over the years that made smoking logistically difficult and culturally unpopular. As a result, California has the second-lowest smoking rate in the country ― 11.3 percent — after Utah, where only 8.9% of the population smokes and Mormon values are credited with discouraging the habit.

Nearly everyone has been exposed to secondhand smoke and knows that it can be deadly, spreads quickly, is detectable more than 6 feet away, and remains airborne for a long time. Questions are now arising with respect to secondhand smoke and COVID-19.

Can the disease be spread to others if someone breathes in secondhand smoke exhaled by an infected person? The California Tobacco Control Program warns, “When people are smoking or vaping, they are also exhaling particulates from deep within their lungs into the environment around them.”

Even before COVID-19, customer demand for smoke-free outdoor dining was exceptionally high. Surveys show that nine of ten San Marcos residents preferred to eat in outdoor dining areas that are smoke-free. And half would eat in outdoor dining areas more often if secondhand smoke were eliminated.

Sonic is one of 60 San Marcos restaurants that have stepped up to the plate to meet diners’ expectations. “The owners decided to make the patio smoke-free so customers can have a safe place to eat, feel comfortable, and have a good experience with us,” explained David Handy, who manages the restaurant.

Smoke-free outdoor dining is also good for employee health and the bottom line. Staff are no longer exposed to secondhand smoke and do not have to spend precious time scrubbing thirdhand smoke residue from surfaces, emptying dirty ashtrays, and picking up cigarette butts.

Health advocates from throughout San Diego County are encouraged that the remaining seven jurisdictions who have not adopted smoke-free outdoor dining policies – Lemon Grove, Port of San Diego, Poway, San Marcos, San Diego, Santee, and Vista – will do so.

Vista Community Clinic encourages San Marcos restaurants, community members, and city officials to become involved with the smoke-free outdoor dining campaign. Restaurants can declare their outdoor dining area smoke-free and add their name to the Clinic’s popular list:

Community members are urged to patronize restaurants that offer smoke-free outdoor dining, and elected officials are encouraged to talk to restaurants and the public about the many benefits of a city-wide policy making all outdoor dining areas smoke-free.

For more information, please contact Jennifer Gill at

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