I’m puzzled that during the pandemic so few cafes near me have moved to serving customers outside, by moving their ordering and payment apparatus to the doorway. I’ve seen about five cafes in San Francisco do this (few enough that none are conveniently close).

(I wanted to include a photo, but I actually just can’t find a picture online, such an obscure idea it is, I guess?)

Is this harder than it looks to organize? And even if it is for a small business run by a single person without a spare second all year to think about aerosols or reorganize, I’m still surprised that Starbucks doesn’t have its act together more.

How bad is it to have your customers indoors to order and pickup their drinks? Some Microcovid estimates for San Francisco, right now: Indoor: about 20 microcovids Outdoor: about 1 microcovid

So very roughly 20 extra microcovids per visitor.

How many visitors? Seems like a Starbucks restaurant serves maybe 500 customers per day = ~10k extra microcovids per day. A lot, but still 100 days to cause an extra case of covid. So only a few extra cases of covid per year, per cafe. Then maybe a factor of two for people they infect. Should they move their whole ordering counter to the front of the store just to avoid like seven people getting covid per year?

Well, that’s maybe 14% of a death per year per cafe, and maybe one person disabled longer term.

Which seems pretty bad, for an arrangement of furniture. For instance, if some brand of cafe had a characteristic setup of tables such that every year in one in seven of these cafes someone died, and in just about every outlet, someone was badly injured every year, I think their negligence would be their main claim to fame, if they were not straight up shut down by the law. Am I wrong?

We can also ask, how bad is it for someone to get covid, then compare to the costs of rearranging. Let’s very roughly guess: P(death) of 1.7% * estimated statistical value of life of $9M * 15% of life left at average age of US covid death of about 76 * a factor of 2 for disability (a guesstimate I’ve heard, based on way more likely but way less bad than death, though I wonder about this, since it is also affecting people much younger). That gives us $0.05/microcovid.1 So doing it outside seems worth very roughly $1 to each customer, or about $500 per day across customers.

This has ignored spread from each person who gets it to others, which seems hard to reason about, but it seems that so far a person who gets covid spreads it to more than one other person directly on average, since the number of cases has gone up overall. For the social costs of this, we also care about further cases caused indirectly, but that seems hard to reason about, so let’s say roughly (and I think optimistically) that if you give an extra customer covid, that causes around one additional covid case. This gives us a total social cost of around $1000 per day from not moving the counter.

(This doesn’t account for the customers who find your cafe too risky and avoid it.)

The effort of moving the counter seems unlikely to be this high.

But maybe it isn’t negligible, and cafes can’t afford to do it without recouping some costs from customers, and there just isn’t demand?

Do customers not care? If an identical coffee were $2.00 more at one cafe instead of another nearby, I expect a lot of people to habitually frequent the cheaper one. Do people not think covid is that bad? (Why not?) My guess would have been that there were a variety of people, and that many people were going to great lengths to avoid getting covid, so at least their patronage would be altered by the covid dose one gets with one’s coffee. But that doesn’t seem true.

Especially perplexing evidence reached me via a trip to Philz. I am told they did have some kind of outdoors serving, which makes sense since they have a large window in the front of their store. But when I went there, in the middle of the pandemic, they had just moved everything back into the store and proudly told me that ‘I could come inside!’ as if I was really hanging out for an opportunity for some indoor co-breathing but had been barred from this by some kind of paternalism. I continued on my way, looking for an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t find one, so eventually came back because at least Philz could be ordered from my phone and had a window open. But their behavior suggests that there is some kind of public demand for the joy of ordering indoors.

I wonder if I’m wrong somehow. I’ve historically been pretty pro-Starbucks, but when their customers’ lives were at stake, they seem to have just thrown a bunch of them away. I wish I saw their perspective better. (Not to suggest they are worse than many others. I wish I understood any of them.)

  1. For a different estimate, I think my house puts a microcovid at about 0.2 minutes of loss in expectation (including from death and disability). If an average person here earns very roughly $50k, maybe they value their time at roughly $25/h (their salary), which is $0.08 per 0.2 minutes, so $0.08 per microcovid. 

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No one is doing math to decide on their covid policies. Personal or public.

IDK about anywhere else, but near me all the grocery stores that have multiple entrances closed all but one of them, thus ensuring everyone is much closer to one another than strictly necessary as those entering pass those leaving. This is to make it easy to count people and ensure they're keeping below occupancy limits, because it's cheaper than having employees at two different doors with, say, walkie talkies.

One of the organizations that runs many parks throughout my state decided to block off or flip over all of the outdoor picnic tables on every property they manage, despite this having very little to no effect on anything, and probably pushing many people towards eating indoors with members of other households instead of outdoors.

Right now, a literal reading of the rules in my state would seem to indicate that I'm required to wear a mask outdoors at all times, regardless of how far I am from anyone else, even if I'm alone on a trail in the middle of the woods, but indoor dining is ok.

Well, obviously it isn't literally true that no one is doing math to decide their personal covid policies. It's just very rare.

I'd be amazed and delighted by any place where public policy was being made that way, though.

My read on it is that companies don't give a shit about customer wellbeing and are almost solely interested in profit. If the impact on customer wellbeing is very large, sometimes they'll care, but 20 microcovids/customer is way below that threshold.

My guess would have been that there were a variety of people, and that many people were going to great lengths to avoid getting covid, so at least their patronage would be altered by the covid dose one gets with one’s coffee. But that doesn’t seem true.

Yeah, I share similar feelings here. I sorta sense that there's enough people who care about reducing their covid exposure such that, in pursuit of profit, companies would adjust to have more ordering windows and outdoor seating. I'm not sure if the demand doesn't exist, or if companies haven't taken enough advantage of the opportunity.

As an anecdote, I went to Starbucks one day and tried to get my coffee in the drive thru instead of by walking inside and ordering. I was on my bike, if that matters. I had waited for a good three or four minutes and had a couple cars behind me at that point. Then a manager came outside and yelled to me that I can't be there if I'm not in a vehicle and said something about customer safety.

To a first approximation, nobody is going to great lengths to avoid COVID. Customers don't care. Mostly people have no idea what the difference between indoor and outdoor is, in terms of risk.

That said, I think this varies from place to place, too. My local Starbucks locations have different degrees of "indoorness". One of them had (last I checked) full indoor operations, other than allowing people to sit. Another one, a few months ago, had blocked off almost all the floor are of the store, leaving only a small indoor area big enough for one person to order. Now they've pushed it even further -- the counter is still "indoors", but there's not even enough space to close the door when someone's standing at the counter, ordering or picking up.

And I notice that the Starbucks app recently added an option for whether you want "indoor" or "outdoor" pickup. I haven't tried it yet, but I noticed it because this same franchise (the one whose "indoor" pickup option isn't really indoors anymore) has a sign with an arrow pointing around the corner to the back door, for "outdoor" pickups. I live in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley; it may be that more people here know about COVID risks and want to take precautions. (Also, the weather is always mild, so indoor space is in less demand.) But I guess this is also evidence against my theory that most people don't care -- this store clearly does, at least.

I suspect that there's a bimodal distribution with COVID concern. In one group is the people who aren't concerned, or are only a little concerned. They might not eat or drink inside, but they have no problem going to a grocery story or buying a coffee inside. For them, ordering outside has no benefit but some downside (lack of normalcy and the normal reasons that ordering isn't done outside, like inclement weather). Obviously there is the real downside of COVID risk, but they're either not very concerned or don't believe in it.

In the other group are people who are quite concerned. They would never eat or drink inside, and going to the grocery story would be a stretch, as would ordering a coffee from Starbucks. But generally, they'd consider the pros and cons and not buy a coffee, likely whether it is indoors or outdoors, since they probably aren't doing the math and are just judging the activity by the general "safe" versus "unsafe" buckets. These type of people are likely not going to be going to Starbucks, regardless. This is doubly the case since people often go to a cafe as part of another activity, which this second group of people is less likely to be doing.

Because the second group isn't going to be buying coffee, Starbucks isn't going to be particularly worried about catering to them. Thus Starbucks is likely only considering the effects on their business from the first group of people, and that first group would rather be indoors than outside.

Obviously this is a massive generalization, and it's really more of a spectrum, but I think the analysis still holds when stretched out over the average group. They'll cater the most to the people who buy coffee at Starbucks the most, and those are the people who are going to be the least concerned about it being outdoors.

Funnily enough, after commenting, I ended up getting Chinese food takeout at a place that have a makeshift pickup window. Looks to me like it was pretty cheap and simple to set up. https://ibb.co/Wv7ZYy1

A Chinese restaurant near me built a plastic enclosure at their doorway, with an airlock that they place the food into, before closing the door and letting you open the opposite door. It works great, although it was definitely non-trivial to construct.

Outdoor is not viable in that much of the US during winter. Companies and individuals aren't using the microcovid methodology or the sources about risk. It's hard to trace infection to spending 20 mins in a cafe (vs from friends or family). 

Guess: people are craving normalcy, and aren’t doing the math.