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Will terraces shrink again after the pandemic?

Jules Johnston/ The Brussels Times

When it was decided restaurants and bars could reopen at the start of May, but only their outdoor areas, many authorities across Belgium gave businesses the chance to expand their terrace area to allow more customers at once in a safe way and to make up for the loss of indoor seating.

In several places, terraces will be allowed to remain expanded, even after indoor areas reopened on Wednesday, so this begs the question:

How long will this generosity last once the pandemic has ended?

Local municipalities are in charge of regulating the expansion of terraces, not the regions, meaning that it is up to them to decide whether terraces can occupy pavements and parking spaces and whether they have to pay to do so.

In Brussels city centre, the permission to expand terraces will be limited to the duration of the pandemic, according to one employee at the City of Brussels administration.

“The permits to expand terraces will remain valid until the end of the tourist season but could be withdrawn sooner if the vaccination rollout across Belgium gains pace. Then, the terraces won’t need extra space, and then we can’t justify occupying public space with terraces,” the employee told The Brussels Times.

Yet, in the Brussels municipality of Etterbeek, where whole streets have been closed off in certain areas to allow terraces to expand their terrace seating area further, the authorities have already confirmed that this initiative will be brought back after the coronavirus crisis.

“This year, businesses could expand their terraces without paying any fees between April and October. After the pandemic, this decision will remain. Next summer, extending them will be allowed again, but businesses will have to pay for this,” Vincent De Wolf, mayor of Etterbeek, told The Brussels Times.

This decision, and similar moves, are the outcome hoped for by industry experts, who have argued businesses should be able to continue working with more extensive terraces even after the coronavirus crisis has ended.

Marc Van Muylders of Horeca Brussels said the continued expansion of terraces is pivotal for the sector, which will need several years to recover from the crisis.

In Flanders, the hospitality sector is also looking to bring back a simplified process to allow terraces to expand into the public space after the coronavirus crisis, and various authorities seem to be backing the idea, according to Horeca Vlaanderen.

“Some cities and municipalities have already committed themselves for next year. It seems appropriate to us to evaluate this after the tourist season: if it is a win-win for the hospitality industry and the municipality,” the organisation’s CEO Matthias De Caluwé told Gazet van Antwerpen.

In Wallonia, the regional government has also decided not to tax businesses whose terraces expand onto public roads and parking spaces during the whole year.

Simplifying constructions

Aside from simplifying the process for businesses to take up public space with their terraces, Brussels also approved a proposal to streamline the building regulations for restaurant and bar owners so they could easily construct terraces when reopening, for example, on parking spaces.

An example of a bar in Brussels which extended its terrace into public space. Credit: Cabinet Pascal Smet

“This means that the basic catering license also includes the opportunity to build terraces until the end of October, without having to apply for a separate permit to do this, they only need a permit to occupy part of the public space,” State Secretary for Urbanism Pascal Smet’s spokesperson Damiaan De Jonge explained.

De Jonge emphasised that this alteration to the permit will definitely be in place both this year and throughout 2022.

“Normally, applying for these building permits can take up a lot of time and effort, so to prepare for the expected influx of applications, we made the rules uniform across the region, allowing many businesses to reopen when they might not have been able to otherwise, as there is very limited space in Brussels, so not all bars and restaurants had terraces,” he added.

In Flanders and Wallonia, the temporary exemption from planning permission for terraces was also granted and extended until the end of March 2022 and 9 January 2022, respectively, meaning that bars and restaurants can install covered and uncovered terraces until these dates without applying for an environmental permit.

However, so far, in both regions, it seems businesses that wish to keep these terraces in place permanently after these dates will be required to apply and pay for a new permit once the exemption has been lifted.

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