COVID-19 ISO Insights

Restaurants: Liability Considerations For a COVID-19 Winter

November 9, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

You’d be forgiven if you’ve hit the point where you never want to see or hear the word “unprecedented” ever again. Unfortunately, that’s been the nature of our world through the bulk of 2020. And as the year draws to a close, another – sigh – unprecedented period awaits us: a pandemic winter.

While there are various implications that may arise from the intersection of COVID-19 and cold, snowy weather, a hot topic of discussion has centered around how restaurants that have shifted activities outdoors will acclimate. Will restaurants continue to offer outdoor dining options? If so, how might they retrofit the space to make sure their patrons aren’t shivering as they sip on their Pinot Noir? And how will all of this affect the risk landscape?

As restaurants continue to persevere through the COVID-19 crisis, various risk considerations loom for this upcoming winter. We already posted on outdoor space heaters and heat lamps that restaurants – as well as homeowners – are buying en masse, a trend that could exacerbate fire risks if not used properly.

But it may take more than heat lamps to compel people to eat outside in the winter.CityLab recently reported on a design challenge in that received hundreds of creative outdoor dining solutions that may be feasible to deploy. Here are some of the winners announced by the city of Chicago, which held the contest; per CityLab, local construction firms will soon begin building prototypes of these ideas:

  • “A pop-up cabin inspired by ice-fishing huts.
  • A movable heated booth just big enough to fill a parking space.
  • A heated table inspired by a kind of traditional Japanese furniture kotatsu.”

Will ingenuity enable some restaurants to stay open and allow patrons to maintain social distancing through the coldest period of the year? Time will tell. If so, here are a couple of risk considerations that could be exacerbated in a COVID-19 winter.

Restaurant Slip/Falls and Vehicle Encounters

Slip and fall claims are hardly novel. But for restaurants that engage in outdoor dining in some fashion this winter, there may be reason to be more concerned than ever about the frequency of these risks. Spilled drinks, slick conditions, and congested areas outdoors may serve as a hazard for customers, restaurant employees, and pedestrians – especially those with disabilities. It also may be worth considering the risk of inebriated patrons walking in this environment as well.

Additionally, with restaurant employees making numerous trips outside and inside, more water may be tracked, thus making the indoor area more slippery. This could heighten the risk for not only the employees, but those who go inside to use the restroom. Also, if restaurants are using third-party food delivery services, which many are reportedly doing to provide an additional revenue stream during the pandemic, then these individuals will be funneling in and out of the restaurant, increasing the number of people potentially exposed to a slip and fall.

Determining responsibility for a loss may add an extra layer of complexity as well. Some restaurants may have tables technically located off their official premises. For example, a restaurant in Jersey City, New Jersey is using a parking lot that belongs to a public school as their outdoor seating area. Who is responsible in the event of a claim in that instance? What about if tables are located on closed streets that belong to a municipality?

Incidents involving collisions with both four-wheeled and two-wheeled vehicles also may need to be considered. Redesigned streets, outdoor dining, and messy weather could itself lead to unwanted – and potentially severe - encounters with people eating outside, restaurant employees, and operators of these transportation devices themselves. Steps may need to be taken to mitigate the chances of a major injury.

COVID-19 Winter: Property Risks May be on the Horizon as Well

Third-party risks aren’t the only part of the winter risk landscape that may be exacerbated due to the continued presence of COVID-19. In the coming weeks, we will also detail how the COVID-19 outbreak – and economic fallout – may impact property risks as well.