How the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik Played His Readers for Chumps on Outdoor Dining and Aerosols — Including Me

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

When I read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (2000) I loved it, because it arrived at a time in my life when I was staying for long periods of time in different cities, several foreign, not simply visiting them; not being a tourist, but something of a resident. I felt I knew the Paris Gopnik described so lovingly, or was at least adjacent to that Paris. (Gopnik’s young son went to the piscine at The Ritz; I was not a swimmer.) It helped that Gopnik wrote as elegantly and sinuously as the Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Métro. Here is one of my favorite set pieces of the many set pieces in Paris to the Moon:

So I was pleased when I felt able[1] to include Gopnik’s New Yorker article, “A Brief Anatomy of Outdoor Dining,” in Links on March 21. But an alert reader showed me that my pleasure was misplaced. Hence I hasten to rectify my error, lest readers be deceived.[2]

Here is an extended excerpt from Gopnik’s “Anatomy”:

Christopher Alexander, who, in a memorable series of books, asked us to see buildings not in terms of fixed blueprints and famous designers but of vernacular rhythms, with self-emergent forms rising from self-healing communities. Alexander celebrated what he called “pattern languages” that give those who use them the ability to create new structures. “All acts of building are governed by a pattern language of some sort,” he insisted. “The quality without a name appears . . . when an entire system of patterns, interdependent at many levels, is all stable and alive.” Outdoor-dining venues were high on his list of institutions that made people “comfortable, and deep seated in respect for themselves.”

Well, the people of New York City have been in the improbable midst of such a moment, as witness to, and makers of, an emergent pattern language, reflecting something almost desperately lived—our shared pandemic. This pattern language, of course, is the newly invented art form of the Outdoor-Dining Shelter, which began to appear on New York curbs in midsummer, blessedly taking over the parking spaces outside restaurants that serviced only cars, those anti-urban engines.

The outdoor-dining structure, it would seem, comes in three essential patterns or modes—the Hut, the Shed, and the Tent—with many hybrids and crossovers.

The Shed is the primal form of outdoor pandemic dining: a simple overhang made of wood or corrugated plastic, extended out over a frame, usually with a lean-to bias, and with one side open to the elements or, at most, covered with a transparent, plastic-shower-curtain-like material.

The Hut is an extension of the Shed into a conscious representation—though often only a representation, a convincing fiction—of a more fully formed building, with doors that close and “windows” that open. Often, too, it contains cosmetic representations of the normal appurtenances of permanence: the Hut looks like a tavern, or a fairy cottage, or an auberge. The Tent, by contrast, uses flexible material—awnings and circus-like “tops”—with ventilation and circulation as much implied as achieved. Tents often give away their makeshift origins elsewhere—as wedding tents, or rent-a-tents for other outdoor occasions, pressed into service as lifeboats for this one.

Readers will at once see why Gopnik’s article made me, well, a little swoony. First, it is beautifully written (and in the sort of style — “, who, ” — that I fancy I can at times emulate). It is perambulatory, with Gopnik as flâneur, not just strolling through Manhattan’s streets, but through concepts. Second, there’s (be still my beating heart) a classification scheme: “the Hut, the Shed, and the Tent.” Third, I stan for Christopher Alexander, as well as pattern languages and their realization in the vernacular. Finally, I love Manhattan just as much as Paris, so I have a rooting interest. I thought I had not surrendered my critical faculties. As it turns out I had. Gopnik needed a theory checker.

Gopnik’s piece was published on March 20. Yesterday, alert reader Nikki sent me the following article from USA Today, “Seating in outdoor structures isn’t always safer than indoor dining. Here’s why.” That piece was published on March 17. From that piece:

COVID-19 ushered in a new era of outdoor dining as struggling restaurants tried to stay in business while minimizing guests’ chances of infection.

Yet, creating temporary dining rooms in parking lots or sidewalks outside doesn’t always mean it’s safer. In some situations this fall and winter, it possibly increased diners’ odds of infection.

A structure located outside can be just as hazardous to its occupants, and perhaps more so, if it is not designed to properly control infectious aerosol concentration,” says William P. Bahnfleth, an engineer and a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State.

…So what makes a dining environment safe? USA TODAY worked with Qingyan Chen, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, to simulate how the virus can spread in a sample structure to help you make more informed decisions.

USA Today’s simulations include Gopnik’s Shed and Tent (but not Hut). The simulations — like the famous El Pais aerosol simulations — are interactive and mobile-friendly, and not so easily reproduced for the desktop. (They not mathematical models of the structures; they are meant for subjective guidance.) First, here is a problematic Shed:

(There are other simulations, with windows open, and windows removed.) Obviously, a shed with closed windows is dangerous, and you should avoid it. Here is the simulation of a problematic tent:

Here, you have to be aware of “which way the wind is blowing,” and avoid tents where the wind is blowing the wrong way. (There are other simulations for tents, and the article also includes “igloos” and “pods,” which Gopnik does not include in his classification scheme.)

If you plan on dining outdoors in New York, I highly recommend the USA Today simulations; the extracts above are not meant to be, er, exhaustive. Now, Gopnik does mention both aerosols and ventilation. He writes:

Yet the challenge of the outdoor-dining structure, underlined by all those minute regulations, is actually simple: it has to persuasively declare itself “outside”—ventilated, open, and discouraging to the implied, if invisible, transmission and circulation of aerosolized sputum—while still maintaining many qualities that one might normally associate with, well, the tricky concept of “indoors”: heat, shelter, and possible propinquity to others. This fiendishly intricate double demand has been met in many ways.

(“[A]erosolized sputum.” Bravo!) And:

The Tent, by contrast, uses flexible material—awnings and circus-like “tops”—with ventilation and circulation as much implied as achieved.

That’s it. But Gopnik needed a theory checker. Gopnik has nothing to say about whether dining within any given Hut, Shed, or Tent is safe. Surely a central concern for a New Yorker writer writing on outdoor dining during a pandemic should be the health and safety of New Yorkers? Gopnik mentions aerosols, and mentions ventilation but, it seems, only to show that he has done the reading. “Ventilation implied,” forsooth! A theory checker would have shown Gopnik that his three categories for outdoor dining structures, albeit elegant, were empty unless they satisfied the needs of actual New York diners (as opposed to flâneurs). A theory checker would have pointed out to Gopnik that those diners require “atmosphere” — that is, an atmosphere not saturated with infectious aerosols. A theory checker would have explained to Gopnik that he could have empowered his readers by showing them which structures are safe, and which are not, and why. You don’t need a magazine printed on slick stock to avoid the plague, apparently; what you need is the newspaper dumped in front of every hotel and motel room in America. And ditto for their respective websites.

I know that “played his readers for chumps” sounds harsh. I meant it to sound harsh. I — and I would guess other readers — was seduced by Gopnik’s stylish prose, and his display of various class and cultural markers, into ignoring the most basic, humane requirement: The safety of readers. I’d prefer not to speculate as to motive; my conjecture: Gopnik feels that service piece journalism is beneath him. But surely a writer as talented as Gopnik could get the “news you can use” part done while retaining his characteristic éclat?


[1] As I would not have felt so with Gopnik on politics. Post-20008 Hendrik Hertzberg cast some sort of evil spell over Gopnik, inducing him to write West Wing-style, and I don’t mean the physical West Wing.

[2] I was going to write a post on how truly horrid a President Obama was, an idea approaching conventional wisdom status among some non-hippie Democrats. So at least Herttzberg has one thing to be thankful for.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Lee

    There’s rows of outdoor dining tents that line our little main street. I avoid them like the plague.

    1. Betty

      The illustrations in the famous El Pais aerosol simulations linked above do not show up on my screen. Does anyone know why not?

  2. clarky90

    Fifty years ago, as a young hippy, I spent a year traveling across Asia (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India). I budgeted $1, a day.

    Travelling by local bus, third class train, walking….. In Varanasi, I lived in a hut beside the Ganges for 4 months. I cooked on an open fire with three stones supporting a round bottomed pot.

    I certainly was exposed to many awful diseases, parasites, amoebas, fungi, insects…. Smallpox, leprosy and so on. I was, however, young and healthy. I got sick with amebic dysentery, but survived. And here I am all these years later. Now old, healthy and still surviving. NOT just good luck, good genes. I have and do, make an effort.

    The last 14 months; …. improving my health…..more exercise, more sauna, more jumping into a very cold ocean, more zinc, more selenium, more fasting, better food….

    “In My Opinion”; when I/we/you, inevitably DO get this Corona (cold) Virus, in one of it’s infinite (endless!) iterations, (it is a virus for Pete’s sake!), tirelessly work to be the healthy person who sluffs it off. Not the fat, diabetic, compromised, multi-pharmaceuticalled, drunkard…… who succumbs.

    We are clearly in the midst of a germophobic-mania. Howard Hughs, times a billion!

    “Howard Hughes–the billionaire aviator, motion-picture producer and business tycoon–spent most of his life trying to avoid germs. Toward the end of his life, he lay naked in bed in darkened hotel rooms in what he considered a germ-free zone. He wore tissue boxes on his feet to protect them. And he burned his clothing if someone near him became ill….”

    “….Hughes’s fear of germs grew throughout his life, and he concurrently developed obsessive-compulsive symptoms around efforts to protect himself from germs, Fowler notes. For example, he wrote a staff manual on how to open a can of peaches–including directions for removing the label, scrubbing the can down until it was bare metal, washing it again and pouring the contents into a bowl without touching the can to the bowl….”

    1. Basil Pesto

      tirelessly work to be the healthy person who sluffs it off. Not the fat, diabetic, compromised, multi-pharmaceuticalled, drunkard…… who succumbs.

      One might have assumed (hoped) that a central Asian hippy quest might have imbued some humility in the quester, but I guess not.

    2. Anonapet

      We are clearly in the midst of a germophobic-mania. clarky90

      I agree but otoh Covid 19 is exposing serious injustices in our society such as pervasive rent/mortgage, wage and debt slavery. And also the embarrassing fact that the US Federal Government cannot even quickly and reliability distribute fiat to all its citizens.

      Reminds me somewhat of that Alistair MacLean novel, “Fear is the key.”

      Btw, are you 90?

    3. Pavel

      Excellent post, clarky!

      There is a great YouTube channel for holistic medicine fans by a Swedish chap called Dr Sten Ekberg. He has a whole series on the benefits of intermittent fasting (by which I have lost 10kg in 3 months and never felt better). He also is shocked and saddened by all the emphasis on masks, social distancing, and lockdowns instead of helping people become healthier through better diets, moderate exercise (simply walking regularly) and avoiding toxins.

      He points out the irony of people going to the supermarket all masked up and then buying poisonous junk food and Coca Cola by the litre.

      Has the sainted Dr Anthony Fauci just once lectured the public on the importance of losing weight, eating properly, and building up one’s immune system?

      I just read a Canadian report that suicidal ideation and attempts are dramatically higher amongst teens. Who could’ve predicted that? There was a time when it would have been considered useful for young people who aren’t at serious risk from a virus to become exposed, to gain herd immunity. But now the definition of the latter has been changed so it only results from 80+% vaccination rates?

      Sigh. On a brighter note I understand now that asparagus is a true superfood and is great for the microbiome so I am dining on delicious asparagus quite often now!

      1. Harry Shearer

        “…young people who aren’t at serious risk from a virus…”? Might want to read up on “Long COVID”, the mysterious catalog of problems in various body systems that follow on after even mild cases of the original respiratory disease.

  3. del

    These structures have always been mostly symbolic, with no claims actually offered for them; some are sufficiently secure and whole — dining at 28 degrees? people were doing it 2 weeks ago — to differ only in small degrees from the restaurant proper.

    It’s just that they’re sitting in what used to be parking spaces, where evidently no one gets sick.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > These structures have always been mostly symbolic, with no claims actually offered for them; some are sufficiently secure and whole

      The point is to be able to distinguish between the safe (well-ventilated) ones, and the unsafe (aerosol-concentrating) ones, which USA Today does, and Gopnik does not.

      Did you read the piece? I would have thought the excerpts were sufficient to show the distinction.

      1. Carla

        I’m waiting until the weather permits real outdoor dining, no walls. That’s ventilation!

        1. montanamaven

          My hang out in Upstate NY had tables on the sidewalk and on the parking spaces with heat lamps. So ventilation was good. But passers by had a tendency to stop and talk. And strangers passed through the tables on the sidewalk. I hated that. So I chose to go inside and eat my meal at the bar that had spots for 6 people very spaced out. I stayed for up to one hour. I felt much better in my cocoon in the corner than I did outside. And maybe my extra Vitamin D3, zinc and nasal spray helped along with luck. Back in Montana at the hang out in a town of 1500 there is no outside dining. But the ceilings are very very high and most people got Covid last fall. So I eat out more than most. I’m an extravert so isolation is damaging to my health. Even if I talk to no one, I enjoy watching people and overhearing a little conversation and complimenting them on their jukebox selections.

      2. whiteylockmandoubled

        Shorter Lambert:

        Confined indoor spaces that gather strangers together pose the greatest risk of community spread of SARS-CoV-2 through aerosol transmission. Mitigating that risk requires appropriate ventilation.

        New York allows businesses to build indoor spaces but call them “outdoors.”

        Adam Gopnik wrote about these structures without telling readers whether any such structures are adequately ventilated as a class, or what markers will tell readers whether individual structures are adequately ventilated.

        New York City and Adam Gopnik are full of shit.

  4. Tom Doak

    My theory is that Gopnik did not play his readers for chumps, so much as he and his editors wish to keep dining out at his favorite establishments, so they do not ask any inconvenient questions. As do the readers of The New Yorker, so they are in fact playing to the audience.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        That is brilliant!

        Sadly, I’ve read similar architectural responses to briefs that were not intended as satire.

      2. kgw

        Yes, that was fun! Don’t miss the latest in the saga of NYARLATHOTEP, and go back and read the rest.

        McSweeny’s Internet Tendency is, well, don’t miss it!

    1. MartyH

      Bravo! And, has there been an Assumption Checker on the other models? Has there been a Fact Checker to verify that there is some observational data to support their claims?

      Just askin’

      1. Basil Pesto

        Fair play to him, the theory checker is a cracking conceit. But to conceive of it is one thing; to take it everywhere with you is another.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > he and his editors wish to keep dining out at his favorite establishments, so they do not ask any inconvenient questions.

      Like I said, played us for chumps. The article was like one of those bad tourist sites that never says anything bad about a hotel.

      1. JohnnyGL

        Here’s the kicker, though.

        Like an orthodox economist during the financial crisis, there will be no reckoning because he stayed firmly within the orthodoxy of contemporary elite wisdom.

        ‘Our understanding was based on CDC and WHO Guidelines!!!’

        ‘Don’t blame us, blame them.’ is the implication, of course.

  5. Elizabeth

    SF has had more open air dining areas – called “parklets” during the pandemic. I think a number of people are under the assumption that as long as it’s outdoors, it’s perfectly safe now. As mentioned, much depends on the wind direction, number of people and structure. So many SF restaurants have disappeared, the remaining ones are trying every angle to stay afloat. SF is pretty chilly – only a few really nice warm days, so heat lamps would be required to dine without freezing..

  6. Arizona Slim

    Can’t say that I was a big goer-outer to bars and restaurants before COVID. Don’t think I’ll be one after the coast is officially clear, whenever that may be.

    I think I’ll just continue to refine my homebrewing, gardening, and home cooking skills.

  7. ambrit

    I’ll inject a smidgen of class analysis here and observe that this basically effects those who have excess disposable income to spend on eating out. Since we began trying to live off of only our combined Social Security stipends, we have almost completely abandoned eating out. It is a basic finance driven decision.
    So, I can see, as does Tom Doak above, that Gopnik is, of necessity, “playing to” his core readers. That group does pay his salary, indirectly. Thus, tailoring one’s output to one’s audience is but the rational thing to do. Plus, it is about dining out, not philosophy.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > tailoring one’s output to one’s audience

      I take your point, but even a well-to-do readership doesn’t want to catch the plague. As Tom Doak said, the point of the article was to maintain, or at least not trash, relationships with the dining establishments.

      1. JohnnyGL

        It’s also a way of avoiding risk.

        Elites always stay close to conventional wisdom like a vulnerable fish tries to get to the center of the larger school of fish. The risk is to those who dare to stray towards the edge of the school. That’s where the predators can strike!

  8. wol

    I read somewhere something to the affect that Gopnik never met a bourgeois amenity he didn’t like.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > a bourgeois amenity

      There’s a lot to be said for bourgeois amenities; Paris is full of them, and they are very nice indeed. Climate impinges now, of course, but to the extent possible, I would like everyone to have bourgeois amenities.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        One of the joys of course of France (and much of the Med), is that eating outside on a warm evening and enjoying some wine with your evening meal isn’t bourgeois at all, its a normal pleasure available to nearly everyone.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          In the US, it was bowling leagues, but the point is the same. Many of the “nice things” in bourgeois neighborhoods will be viable in other neighborhoods with more time and money. The US has non rural food deserts (that I at least can comprehend) these days.

      2. Robert Gray

        > … to the extent possible, I would like everyone to have bourgeois amenities.

        ‘Professor Marx, isn’t it hypocritical for you to travel in the First Class carriage?’

        ‘Not at all. After the revolution, everyone will travel First Class!’


  9. vlade

    “outdoor dining” in an enclosed space? That’s a contradiction of terms (and TBH, based on the snippets you provided, he acknowledges it).

    1. Ignacio

      Fake outdoor? Such places have come very popular in Madrid this winter and in some cases as I could see by the end of December, shortly before the officially called ‘third wave’ (in reality the fourth), overcrowded tents made of plastic with an open side in places that are usually spring-to-autumn terraces and have now been converted in full-year ‘outdoor’ terraces by virtue of the pandemic. Undoubtedly contagion hot spots that didn’t exist before. Another kind of hot spots are the clandestine late-night parties in locals and houses, a new practice that the pandemic (the prohibitions) brought too. These are held by the several hundreds every weekend, and because they are clandestine, the conditions (overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation…) are quite possibly the best for transmission.

  10. PlutoniumKun

    I think post Covid dining will follow the pattern of outdoor smoking. When smoking was banned here in windy and wet Ireland most bars and restaurants simply put an awning (if that) for outside smokers. But as they became more comfortable they increasingly turned into more permanent structures that were built to stay within the (quite vague) regulations. One bar local to me had a huge awning covered courtyard that was so intensely heated and sealed that it was almost indistinguishable from being outside (they did, just before Covid arrived, get shut down for pushing the regulations too far).

    I’ve already seen outdoor dining units which seem pretty much as airtight as a regular building, and often with small tables which pushes people closer together. The key point of course seems to be airflow, which is going to be very climate dependant as to whether you can have meaningful flow without making it so uncomfortable everyone will just order takeout instead.

    What you need of course is detailed guidance and regulation, with proper quantified standards for spacing and airflow and awning/ceiling height. Its not impossible to do this, and apply the rules fairly, but first you need for the authorities to accept aerosol transmission as the primary source of infection, and too many are still holding back on this. Even countries that have been successful and sensible so far, like Japan, seem to be getting this wrong, as can be seen by their recent decision to stop cherry blossom parties while still allowing bars and cafes to stay open. This seems to me to be completely upside down thinking.

    Coming up to summer, its absolutely vital that authorities get a grip on this if people are going to be allowed to enjoy some safe socialising, not to mention save numerous small businesses from collapse.

  11. montanamaven

    This was a great post that I read at 4am. Thank you, Lambert. And Tom Doak’s comment

    so they do not ask any inconvenient questions

    sums up why I dropped my New Yorker subscription a long time ago. I too like Lambert read Adam Gopnik’s book, but somewhere around my conversion from being “a Democrat” to becoming some kind of amalgam of libertarian.conservative who continues to be a contrarian (around 2009), I lost my appetite for any kind of conventional wisdom or elite entertainment. I didn’t really totally drop my hoity toity attitude though until around 2015.

  12. Stanley Dundee

    Lambert, your sparkling clarity of prose and your incisive analyses are so far beyond the pretentious twaddle of a toady like Gopnik that I nearly spurted my cranberry juice when I read that [you] fancy [you] can at times emulate [his style]. Gopnik would do well to emulate you! Your regard for Christopher Alexander, on the other hand, I enthusiastically share. Keep up the great work you do (emphasizing the role of aerosols in the spread of Covid-19 is a fine example), and leave The New Yorker to languish in the ever-shrinking bubble of privilege that it faithfully serves.

  13. LawnDart

    “I was going to write a post on how horrid a President Obama was…”

    For God’s sake man, don’t let us stop you!

    Put it down on paper and give it a sense of permanence– document and provide a point of reference, something we can use against forgetting, against the gaslight assaults upon our memories and the experiences of our realities.

  14. Duke of Prunes

    Chicago had a contest last fall to crowdsource ideas to continue outdoor dining into our frigid winters. Among the serious entries, there was also an idea for “Rats with Radiators” (complete with illustrations). Unfortunately, the original submission is no longer on the web, but the program is described in this article (

    The money quote:

    And then there was the most ridiculous pitch of the bunch: “Rats with Radiators,” which was summed up in a four-word pitch by Niki Hughes: “Put radiators on rats.”

    The proposal includes COVID-19 precautions: “All rats will be temperature checked before being issues their radiator at the beginning of each shift.”

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