Houston restaurants allowed to expand seating to parking lots

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Two local cities have approved plans to allow restaurants to expand customer capacity by expanding outside their dining rooms. The city of Houston approved an ordinance Wednesday and Sugar Land approved its today.

Houston used Ninfa's on Navigation as a blueprint, in which a portion of the restaurant would be converted into spaces for tables and chairs, spaced according to distancing requirements, for diners who prefer fresh air to air conditioning.

It's seen as a way to bring back customers who want to avoid enclosed spaces with recirculated air, because of concerns about COVID-19.

We know from customer sentiment they feel better. Fresh air seems to help with consumer confidence," said Melissa Stewart with the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

Another possibility is being considered for Houston's Main Street, where restaurants have closed, some temporarily. Other closures could be permanent.

Rather than using parking lots, what's being proposed is to allow restaurants in several blocks of Main Street is to expand onto sidewalks, and close the street to traffic.

"It's the same thing that was done in parts of Europe, and also New York, " said Stewart. "It really increased capacity and it's within the governor's guidelines."

The city is considering the idea, but approval would also be required by the TABC for restaurants that sell alcohol. METRO would also have to sign off on the plan because of the light rail that runs in the middle of Main Street.

Today, downtown is largely empty during the day, because of employees now working from home. A pizza restaurant in the area has seen its business reduced by more than half. The prospect of seeing diners at tables on sidewalks made Marcus Allen, who lives downtown, smile.

"To have it like Italy and have people eat in the street and hang out, using social distancing, would be a way to get things moving again," he said.

A lot of Houston institutions have already permanently closed. Pappas shuttered five of its restaurants around Houston recently. Bernie's Burger Bus was another casualty.

Stewart said help to revive the hospitality industry is needed on several fronts. "We need Congress to pass another aid package for small businesses." The dining expansion is another. "Without significant help, we could be looking at 20 to 30% of closures."

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