By Sharon Lurye, Uptown Messenger
While some bars in New Orleans hoped they could survive the economic fallout of COVID-19 by selling alcohol to-go, city and state officials have clarified that they must close completely – leading to a peculiar situation where restaurants, breweries and even drive-thru daiquiri shops can sell alcohol to-go, but not regular bars.
To stem the spread of coronavirus, on March 16 Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all bars in the state closed until at least April 13. However, drive-thru daiquiri stores can still remain open and restaurants can still sell packaged beer or wine for curbside pick-up or delivery.
Breweries can still sell their beer, though not from the tap. Some bars with kitchens initially thought that they could still employ some staff by selling alcohol and food to-go as well, but officials ordered them to stop.
“There was some ambiguity early on, and we were hoping that we would be allowed to do that. But the mayor made it very clear pretty quickly that all bars are bars, even if they have a kitchen,” said Cole Newton, owner of Twelve Mile Limit, who initially had plans to still sell food and drinks to-go.
Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Cure on Freret Street and the restaurant Cane & Table in the French Quarter, said he believes the ban on take-out alcohol and food isn’t fair when many restaurants are doing just that.
“We would love to do it, but the law doesn’t allow us to do it. So we feel we’ve been placed at an unfair disadvantage,” he said. “But we understand, and we’re going to abide by the rules.”
Juana Marine-Lombard, commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, explained that, initially, the state focused on shutting down places where large groups of people congregate. Police in New Orleans, for example, had to disperse a crowd of more than 250 people outside Tracey’s Bar on Magazine Street the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.
Drive-thru daiquiri shops got an exception because, by nature, they do not encourage people to linger. “There is no public congregation if your doors are closed and you’re strictly a drive-thru,” said Marine-Lombard.
Now, the focus is more on stopping all non-essential businesses so that people stay at home as much as possible and don’t spread or contract the virus.
“Trust me, I love the bar industry. It’s a large part of my job,” said Marine-Lombard. “But I don’t know how you can justify a bar as essential.”
The commissioner acknowledged that drive-thru daiquiri stands aren’t essential either, so “that may not continue. We are looking into that right now.” At the same time, “We’re trying not to close down anyone more than we have to.”
Bodenheimer, of Cure, said he doesn’t want the drive-thru daiquiri shops shut down: “Every business that’s operating right now, I’m thrilled for them.”
But, he added, “We just want to be treated fairly and we want the ability to do walk-up or take-out or delivery, the way other businesses are.”
Bodenheimer had to close Cane & Table because there are no more tourists in the French Quarter to eat there. Meanwhile, Cure sells food, too, and has the local fan-base that could support it.
“There are people who call us every day to ask us if we could make cocktails to-go,” Bodenheimer said. But because Cure is a bar with a kitchen instead of a restaurant with a bar, it is not allowed to sell anything.
Overall, the two closures leave around 50 people unemployed.
“There’s a tremendous amount of guilt that we all have for having to put our teams out of work,” said Bodenheimer. “When you provide jobs for people, there’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that. And not being able to live up to that responsibility, for people who are doing as much as they can, it’s demoralizing.”
Cure is raising money for staff by accepting donations via Venmo: @CureCo-Relief. Twelve Mile Limit is supporting its staff by selling merchandise and gift cards.
Newton, of Twelve Mile Limit, said that he understands why the closures are necessary for public health, even if it hurts his business.
“Initially I was pretty upset about it, because we have a certified kitchen. Why is it we are being singled out?” he said. He’s had to furlough 20 staff members, plus himself, at Twelve Mile Limit and his other bar in Bywater, The Domino.
But then Newton started thinking about all the bars on Bourbon Street that sell pizza alongside their Hurricanes, Hand Grenades and daiquiris — and what would happen if officials started making exceptions for bars with food.
“Bourbon Street would effectively be allowed to remain open, and that would be really dangerous under these circumstances,” he said.
He said he understands that state and city officials have to make tough choices to save lives.
“We’re trying to balance public health versus economic health, and there’s no easy decision,” he said. “Every decision is a bad one.”
Reporter Sharon Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.