This is how Houston-area officials are enforcing restaurant and bar capacity guidelines

HOUSTON – The complaint came in through a call to 3-1-1, an information line for the City of Houston. The dining room was too crowded, said a customer at a Waffle House in southeast Houston. The complaint generated a visit from the Fire Marshal’s COVID-19 response team — Senior Investigator Rodriguez and Inspector Gomez — who entered the restaurant on a fact-finding mission. After a five-minute conversation, the pair left. There was no evidence of a capacity violation. 

“The way she’s got it set up — the manager’s got it set up — it’s the way everybody should have it,” Gomez said. 

Gomez and Rodriguez work for the Houston Fire Department’s Fire Marshal’s Office. They’re one of nine pairs assigned to the office’s COVID-19 response team. 

Gomez explained why the restaurant did not violate the state’s occupancy order, from his inspection. 

“She’s got tables roped off. Sections where people can sit. No more than four people at a table,” he said. 

This is the experience for these gumshoes — not all complaints lead to violations. If they do, the task isn’t to write a citation, KPRC2 has learned. 

“We try to inform and educate at the same time, so, if they’re not aware of it they can follow the mandated ordinance,” Gomez said. 

The current mandated ordinance is that restaurants can fill tables up to 75% of the total occupancy. 

“We just visualize, look at the restaurant, and make sure that... currently, they’re supposed to be at 75% capacity or under and they normally are and if they’re not, they’ve been very willing to get compliant,” Rodriguez said. 

How busy are they? 

“We’re averaging about 100 [visits] a day. On a busy day we made maybe 180, but on average about 100,” Rodriguez said. 

Are restaurants and bars complying? 

Gov. Greg Abbott warned Tuesday that Texans in their 20s have contributed to the state’s surge in daily positive coronavirus cases as they have rushed out to bars and restaurants after the state began reopening. While Gomez and Rodriguez said inspectors are busiest on weekends responding to complaints at area bars and clubs, for the most part, businesses are in compliance. 

“We haven’t had very many issues with managers not wanting to be compliant,” Rodriguez said. 

Is enough being done to enforce the guidelines? 

Phase 3 of Texas’ economic reopening included the ability for restaurants to expand dining rooms to 75% of their total occupancy. The expansion came amid an increase in daily positive cases, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a press conference last week, prompting some to question whether the state was moving too quickly. 

Abbott doesn’t think so. At a press conference Tuesday, the governor said municipalities had tools — aside from mandates — that would enforce guidelines, referring to occupancy laws. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday that the likelihood of city resources being allocated to such enforcement was low. 

“Our local resources have been stretched thin on so many different things,” Turner said. 

The mayor continued by saying COVID-19 health guidelines for bars and restaurants are set by the state. 

“It was the state they reopened to 25% then 60% and on Friday the state opened at 75%,” Turner continued before saying enforcement should be up to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or TABC. 

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.