Letter to the editor: Edmonds streateries — some basic math


I’m a math and science person. So forgive me (or appreciate me) for this, but there are two math items I want to share about our streateries.

Two weeks ago, I emailed the city council with my comments on the streateries. (I’ll say now, I oppose them.) Council President Susan Paine’s response included this statement: “The damned virus makes it unsafe to be indoors, unmasked for food and drink.” I wondered, is it really unsafe to be indoors, unmasked? The state and the CDC have allowed this, for months. But, I thought, to be fair,  maybe the facts disagree.

According to the Snohomish County Health Department’s monthly COVID statistics, in all of Snohomish County in October there were two restaurant-related outbreaks of COVID. The average number of COVID cases from an outbreak is 4.8 people, so rounding up, that’s 10 people who caught COVID in a restaurant outbreak. That’s across the entire county, including areas where mask compliance is far lower than in downtown Edmonds. With a population of 840,000, that incidence of restaurant-related COVID is what in scientific terms would be considered below trace level — well down in the “noise.”

(Editor’s note: See comments below from Dawn Parker, a Snohomish Health District employee, explaining how this calculation is incorrect.)

The second math item relates to the city’s clearly stated support for diminishing our impact on greenhouse gasses. I’ve been wondering for a while, as I walk past the streateries with propane heaters flaming, just how much impact those have in terms of carbon dioxide. I did some research, using information from Ferrell Gas Company, Argonne National Laboratory, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and a bit of basic chemistry. I’ll spare you the full analysis but here is the answer, in a nutshell.

Each large heater produces approximately 2.7 kilograms of CO2 per hour. Each smaller heater, on the table top, produces approximately 0.7 kg of CO2 per hour. An idling car produces between 1.7 and 4.3 kg of CO2 each hour. So each big heater is comparable to a car, and every four smaller heaters also equate to a car in terms of CO2 production.

There are currently 36 large and four small propane heaters downtown. (I just got home from counting.) I’m not including heaters in outdoor seating areas off the street. Now think of that — accepting those carbon emissions is like saying “I’m OK with 37 cars sitting in the heart of Edmonds idling for several hours every night.” Those cars would fill almost all of the parking spaces from the fountain north to the museum, east to the crosswalk, south to the alley, and west to 4th Avenue. Every night, from about 4-8 p.m. all winter.

Not all of the heaters were burning when I was out. But many were, some with no patrons in sight, and most every streatery was illuminated with electric lights, empty or not. There are also some streateries with no heat, or electrical heat (which is still considered as a carbon-source by the city’s assessment, but far less so than propane.)

So is it “unsafe to be indoors, unmasked for food and drink”? If you consider a 1 in 84,000 chance too high to be safe, then yes. If you have health concerns, your chances may be far worse, and that’s understandable. But are you going to go sit outside in Edmonds in the winter, if your health is precarious?

And do you believe Edmonds should be mitigating its climate impacts? Then think of those 37 cars, every night, idling around the fountain and ask yourself whether you can support that and be consistent with your own beliefs.

Brian Potter


  1. Brian, thank you so much for this analysis of the impact of the propane heaters and the pros and cons on health and indoors vs. outdoor restaurant dining. I for one cannot tolerate the smell of gas coming from large propane heaters when I have been anywhere near them. The point you are making is very substantial when equating 37 idling cars to the burning heaters! We would all be appalled at seeing that many cars running for that many hours you have suggested. if this were happening in downtown Edmonds. I can assure you anyone with compromised health would not be sitting outside in the cold weather while warming themselves while breathing in gas fumes. I’m very grateful for your research and I’m sure others will be when they read your article. Thank you for this perspective and I would presume every council member cares enough about climate issues to see we should not be on the wrong side of this. Let’s see how they vote tomorrow. It will be more clear.

    1. Well, now that King County and it’s many dozens of restaurants are requiring proof of vaccination and checking ID, and the reservation process requires a contact phone number or email, that will make tracing outbreaks among patrons much easier, I would think.

  2. CO2…and odorles, colorless POISONOUS gas. Do they have CO2 detectors? Ah, lets all eat out in the fresh air.

    More fodder for the conversation.

    1. Delores, carbon dioxide, CO2 is not poisonous. That’s carbon monoxide, CO. That’s why homes are now required to have CO detectors as well as fire alarms. One advantage of propane is that it burns very cleanly, meaning it produces only water vapor and carbon dioxide, unlike gasoline that produces many other gasses and particulates. (A faulty heater can produce CO, to be sure. And that’s why those heaters should never be used indoors.)

  3. Great points Brian. The Steateries should come down for many reasons and now you have added more. Thank you for your research.

  4. Shane Hope represented the following to City Council right before its vote to allow streateries on December 15, 2020:

    “Councilmember K. Johnson said one issue that was discussed previously but was not addressed tonight was the use of gas heaters and their impact on the environment. She asked what staff had learned. Ms. Hope answered in general gas heaters will not be used due to fire protection concerns with the flames and because few propane heaters are available. The preferred option will be electric heaters.”

    Thanks Brian for taking an inventory of the gas heaters being used. Gas heaters may be the primary source of heat.

    For those who would like to watch the video, please go to the 3:07:15 mark of the December 15, 2020. It is also found on Page 22 of the approved City Council Meeting Minutes for December 15, 2020.

    What is City Council’s responsibility when it knows it passed an Ordinance under a false understanding?

  5. Thank you Mr Potter for your excellent, much appreciated efforts and research outlined in your article.

    1. Thanks Brian another nail in hopefully the coffin. We did a quick spin around Edmonds last night after dinner at E Pulo. It was 7:15, there were 2 tables being used at Daphne’s and 1 table at Salt and Iron. That was it.

  6. Thank you Brian for your important factual input. I’m sure no one on the council has made such an detailed study. Many citizens of Edmonds have not even delved into this as you have. You have opened our minds.

  7. For context, I just pulled up Edmonds car-pedestrian fatality rates. According to city-data.com, there was one pedestrian fatality in an auto accident in Edmonds in each of 2019 and 2018. With a population of 42,040 in 2019, that means the odds of being killed by a car while walking in Edmonds are twice as high as those of getting COVID-19 in a restaurant outbreak in Snohomish County. Consistency would dictate that anyone concerned about safety of eating indoors would also not walk on or near any automobile traffic. (And I say that well aware that people are not logical, rational, or consistent – including myself.)

    1. I am 71 years of age and my husband is 76. We both have health challenges and are not comfortable in group settings such as church services and restaurants at this time. We are very grateful for outdoor seating and will continue to patronize restaurants providing this service throughout the winter months. These are extraordinary times, but we will come through it. Respectfully, Kathryne LeMieux

  8. Thank you, Brian, for that thoroughly researched comment on the issue. You have shone a light on a very complex situation by applying logic and facts and then writing a very unemotional summary. Bravo.

    I wonder why no one has yet pointed out how difficult it must be for servers to be going in and out of restaurants in our notoriously wet and cold winters? Of course, nobody is forcing them to take these jobs, but I thought I’d mention it. I’d feel a little guilty as a diner if I had to watch that occurring.

  9. Thank you, Brian for so eloquently explaining your research and the facts. I’m a person of science and math and appreciate a scientific explanation of the facts. Now, for my observations based on living in Edmonds since 1979. The street side shacks make downtown look like a “shantytown “. Edmonds used to be a quaint waterfront village. I don’t need to mention the lack of parking which has been definitely worsened since the pandemic. Many of us don’t go downtown now because of lack of parking and deplorable appearance due to the shacks. I’ll return when they are gone.

  10. Thank you for once again bringing climate change to the forefront. I read about this same problem being identified in Paris years ago and the disastrous effect on the environment that were identified in the year around outdoor street cafes. This was also seen as a temporary fix to help businesses out during the winter and just as here no one thought that propane heating lamps would be included or the climate effects that they brought. Between this information and the recent posting about inside/outside usage these really need to be taken down. I have also been wondering if the businesses are renting the publicly funded street space? I am all for helping out in a pandemic but, these shouldn’t become permanent! And they are looking very permanent right now!

  11. Bravo! Trust the science. Just another valid reason why these shanties should come down. Thanks, Mr. Potter, for a reasoned approach!

  12. Multiple restaurants in town have outdoor seating (Epulo Bistro, Mar •ket , The Loft and Demetris as examples) and have for years. You don’t need the streateries to dine in Edmonds outside if you have health concerns. The “there are no outdoor seating options” for restaurants in Edmonds without streateries had not and does not hold water.

  13. For some of us who are not comfortable dining indoors during a continuing pandemic, but we enjoy being local restaurant patrons, the outdoor dining options for multiple restaurants have been a blessing during Covid times. We enjoy seeing people out and about in town.
    We will continue to support the outdoor street-eating options.

  14. Brian,

    This data is inaccurate and skewed. As an employee of Snohomish County Health I oversaw business outbreaks of Covid. We do not report outbreaks in restaurants unless it is an employee. There is no way to track an outbreak in a restaurant amongst diners. When we interview Covid patients they do not know whether names etc if diners sitting around them. Therefore it is not traced or reported. This letter is almost unbearably disappointing. As a scientist yourself I know you really heavily on facts. Are you actually believing that Covid is not transmitted indoors with masks off? With Omicron here this is not the time to be writing letters like this stating your chances are higher to get hit by a car than catch Covid indoors unmasked. It is simply not true.

    1. Dawn, any analysis is only as good as the data available. I worked with the data provided and the descriptions of it in the document. I don’t understand how an outbreak that only involves an employee can result in multiple COVID cases (the report average is 4.8). You’ll also note that my analysis was limited to outbreaks, as there’s no way to know about how many individual people caught COVID in a restaurant, based on the data available. That includes my added comment comparing statistics with car accidents – I did state I was comparing with COVID outbreaks. I do believe COVID is transmitted indoors with masks off, but I do not see any data that would indicate restaurants are a major locus of that transmission. Personal experience isn’t data, but I have eaten in dozens of restaurants over the last 5 months, vaccinated and masked until seated, and have tested negative several times.
      For the sake of argument, let’s say eating in a restaurant is unsafe. I would again ask, how many people with that level of personal risk will then opt to sit outside in Edmonds winter weather, cold, wet, and rainy, to eat? And how many, if you take away the heaters?

      1. Brian,

        The outbreaks in restaurants are employees only. I have worked and overseen hundreds of these cases. Occasionally a diner is in the number but only if the interviewee discloses they ate at the restaurant while they were contagious. The art of tracing transmission in restaurants is hard and inaccurate. Diners and the restaurant staff don’t know the names and contact information of other diners. So an outbreak is not traced in restaurants, only with employees. Often one employee tests positive and then many other employees test positive. It is then declared an outbreak. Are you actually questioning my knowledge on this? I do this for a living. That is all I am saying, you can’t simply state due to the low outbreak rate dining inside restaurants is safe. This is false and an ill informed statement to make. I am vaccinated and boosted and I will not be dining indoors. I do however take my family and guests to the covered streateries. I do take out also. I don’t really care if the streateries stay. I do care however that you are spreading false information and making big statements without quantifying that it is outbreaks amongst employees. It may not say that on the website, but now I have told you and you still push back.

        1. Yes, I was questioning your knowledge, but if it’s what you do for a living (I didn’t know that, I thought you volunteered) I will concede on that. I did what I could with the data SHD provides, and can only say that the reports are at best unclear, given your insight. I was not attempting to mislead or spread false information. (I would, at this point, propose that you take my misinterpretation as a sign that maybe the reports could be more clearly worded, if they’re going to be distributed to the public.)
          The rest of my concern, about the CO2, stands.

    2. I did go back, after reading your concern about what an outbreak is and how the data are processed, and after I had posted my initial reply. The report I was initially looking at (https://www.snohd.org/DocumentCenter/View/8774/COVID-19_Monthly_OCT_2021), did not give a definition of an outbreak. However, another report in the Document Center (https://www.snohd.org/DocumentCenter/View/8768/COVID-19_Race_Analysis_11-18) does:
      Non-healthcare outbreaks consist of childcares, places of employment, faith-based organizations, community, and social events. A non-healthcare outbreaks are defined as:
      1. Two or more laboratory-positive (PCR or antigen) cases, AND
      2. At least two of the cases have symptom onset dates within 14 days of each other, AND
      3. Plausible epidemiological evidence of transmission in the workplace or related setting, AND
      4. No other known epidemiological link outside of the workplace or related setting.
      While I am not disputing your statement that an outbreak isn’t reported unless it is an employee, this definition does indicate it includes more than just that employee. The list of locations considered here precludes that outbreaks would only include employees, as some of them do not involve employees/employment.
      The same report states “Retail locations were the most common site of COVID-19 outbreaks.” Retail locations are distinct, in the report, from restaurants. If streateries are meant as a way of reducing COVID transmission in restaurants, but retail locations are more common sites of outbreaks, then it would make more sense to allow the retail locations to set up “streetail” structures outdoors in the street, to reduce these outbreaks, than it does to reduce restaurant outbreaks.
      (And again, I am only speaking of what SHD considers outbreaks, not about individual infections that get counted as community transmission.)

  15. Seems to me all these comments ignore the fact that the streeteries (streateries?) are intended to help keep Edmond’s restaurants from shutting down.

    If people don’t feel comfortable eating inside, then it doesn’t matter if the actual risk is not as large as perceived.

    If the outdoor table is not warm (and inviting) then no customers.

    If the lights are out when no one is sitting down, then no one is going to sit down.

    Or if only restaurants with existing patio areas can provide outdoor seating, then only those restaurants will continue to exist.

    While I’m not a fan of the streeteries, I realize they are a small price to pay, in the short run, to maintain the variety that helps make Edmonds attractive.

    Then to compare the pollution from gasoline engines against that from propane heaters. That’s not only cheating, it’s demeaning to your audience.

  16. We are in a climate emergency and we need to be making decisions that are part of the solution, not aggravating the problem. To prop up restaurants at a detrimental cost to our environment is short sighted and a choice we make at our own peril.

  17. Let’s apply the restaurant math elsewhere. Couldn’t the City Council make onsite meetings safe by having it so a waiter took the council-person’s order and they ate while conducting the meetings? They could sit outside City Hall in “Meeteries”, maskless, making motions, arguing stuff. Jeff Taraday could be a waiter, and the whole things would be immediately safe again. I’m a soft skull idiot because the protocols make no sense to me at all.

  18. I’m really grateful for Dawn’s comments. My daughter and I eat out at restaurants twice a week for daddy/daughter dates. She is two years old and ineligible to be vaccinated, which limits us in being able to do doing a lot of activities. She wears a mask like a champ in all indoor settings and in crowded outdoor settings. What makes restaurants particularly unique from other indoor establishments is that one can’t eat with a mask on. I am grateful to the city for providing these streateries as it dramatically increases the accessibility of outdoor dining for families like ours. If there is data to be gathered, then I think it should be on which establishments utilize their streateries sufficiently. I know Claire’s has shut down their outdoor dining, making that structure unusable. If the structures aren’t being used to reduce indoor transmission, then they should come down. Many other restaurants have invested in them by putting up lights and installing heaters. I know Brian you made the comment about propane heaters and the environmental impact. Your math assumes that all heaters are all operating at the same time, at max, and that it has the same impact that cars have. I get the overall sense of what you are getting at, but inaccurately inflating the numbers by distorting use scenarios while minimizing the risks of infection is irresponsible. Alternatively, restaurants can easily be asked to use electric heaters. If the argument is that dining inside a restaurant without a mask is a fully safe activity that we don’t need outdoor seating, then one could extrapolate from that argument that masks are not necessary in other indoor settings because it doesn’t impact transmission. That’s just not how disease transmission works. Disease is most transmissible indoors without a mask. Until the CDC determines that the general risk of infection is low enough that masks do not need to be worn indoors anymore, then outdoor dining options are an ideal alternative for restaurants and it’s patrons.

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