COVID-19 Hospitalizations Trigger Harris County Restaurant Occupancy Reduction

Shabu House safety measures

Due to COVID-19 patients exceeding 15% of total hospital capacity for more than seven days, restaurants in Trauma Service Area Q — which includes Harris County — were required to return to 50% guest occupancy earlier this week. According to Douglas Loveday, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Service, a letter was sent to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo stating that the threshold was reached on Tuesday, January 5. Hidalgo announced the occupancy rollback on her social media channels.

Since October, restaurants were allowed up to 75% guest occupancy. (Total occupancy is determined by a fire marshall either before opening or upon inspection.) The rollback does not apply to outdoor spaces, such as patios, but social distancing rules must still to be followed.

Under the Governor Greg Abbott‘s order, bars in Trauma Service Area Q — which in addition to Harris County includes Austin, Colorado, Fort Bend, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller and Wharton counties — are to close indoor service and only offer to-go or delivery as allowed by TABC guidelines.

Lina Hidalgo January 5
Lina Hidalgo announced on January 5 that Harris County was headed for a rollback of the Open Texas occupancy guidelines. Video capture photo.

However, in Harris County, where new COVID-19 cases have been on a steady climb since the end of September, Hidalgo never allowed bars to reopen. That was within her authority, as Abbott left the decision to reopen bars to the discretion of county judges.

In order to reopen, many bars applied for and received approval to operate as restaurants. Under TABC regulations, a business is deemed a bar if 51% or more of its revenue is from alcohol sales. However, some bars were either already serving food or added food service, enabling them to be re-certified as restaurants.

Phoenix on Westheimer front patio
One of the socially distanced patios at The Phoenix On Westheimer in Montrose. Photo by Vu Truong.

The net effect of the order for restaurants is the 25% reduction in indoor occupancy — which isn’t particularly significant. Many restaurants, especially smaller ones, were never able to achieve 75% occupancy due to the requirement to space tables six feet apart. “No restaurant is designed for tables to be six-feet apart and be above 75% occupancy, excluding the patio. It economically and ergonomically is not possible,” said owner Raffi Nasr of Craft Pita.

Ronnie Killen, who owns seven different restaurants in Houston, Pearland and The Woodlands, has a similar perspective. “We were never over 50% with the social distancing guidelines,” he said.

Furthermore, restaurant business is down, meaning the “problem” of a fully booked dining room is rare. The U.S. Census Bureau’s advance monthly estimates for November 2020 indicate that restaurant business was down 17.2% compared to the same month in 2019. “We’re rarely ever busy enough to hit that 50% mark anyway, so it actually won’t affect us very much,” said Christopher Huang, owner of Ninja Ramen.

The restaurant occupancy reduction is based on guidelines in Abbott’s Executive Order GA-32, which was issued on October 7, 2020. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services tracks the COVID-19 hospitalization data and issues the notification to county judges when the seven-day threshold is reached.

The Trauma Service Area Q rollback closely follows that of Area R, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Newton and Orange counties. Those counties were ordered to roll back occupancy and close bars on December 22.

All affected Texas counties are required to maintain the reduced restaurant indoor occupancy and keep bars closed until “seven consecutive days in which the number of COVID- 19 hospitalized patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity is 15 percent or less.”

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