New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s June 9 announcement that bars could reopen at 25 percent capacity when the city began its second phase of reopening on June 13 was met with a mixed response from the local bar community. Aware of the scenes and resulting citations from the day that restaurants and bars with food permits reopened for dine-in service in May, owners had to weigh the potential risks with limited rewards.
Like many bars owners in the city, T. Cole Newton of Mid City cocktail destination Twelve Mile Limit and “wine dive” Domino in Bywater furloughed his entire staff in March. After the phase two announcement, he set out to begin bringing staff back, albeit gradually. He’s now offering limited weekend hours and patio seating at Twelve Mile Limit, and in the case of the Domino, setting up tables on St. Claude Avenue’s neutral ground (the grassy median separating lanes of traffic). “I’m comfortable staying one step behind what is allowed to see how things go,” he said.
Newton isn’t too worried about patrons flouting the rules — which are to wear a mask when entering and while moving around the bar. “If you don’t show up with a mask, you aren’t coming in,” he said. “You can’t move furniture around. Honestly, bartenders are used to having difficult conversations — to ensure that everyone is respectful, or to regulate an unwanted come-on to a customer, so we have a safe space. This is just one more aspect of that.”
Polly Watts has spent the past 35 years overseeing her popular craft beer bar, the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Avenue. Watts, who is known as an industry organizer and advocate, is approaching this new turn with typical sanguine energy. At the outset, when the pub closed, she turned the space into a community kitchen, producing close to 2,000 meals for folks affected by COVID-19. “Because we serve food, we could have opened in May, but we didn’t feel comfortable letting people in. I have to keep my people safe,” she said. She made batched staff meals for staffers and their families and ordered supplies in bulk, so nobody in her 35-person team had to grocery shop. “I wanted to keep them out of the stores. Nobody got sick.” She even worked with the New Orleans Health Department to use the pub as a community testing site, with 284 service people getting tested.
For reopening, Watts decided to institute table seating (rather than letting customers seat themselves), with a team member showing guests to the bar or reconfigured dining area. She installed plexiglass dividers all along the bar to set off the space. Guests must wear masks to come in. “We’ve had a few people walk out, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. You have to have a plan; if not, there will be chaos. A bar is a social place, I get it. Table service allows us to eliminate the cocktail-party atmosphere that will happen once people start drinking.” For now, she’s open Thursday through Sunday for limited hours. “We’re going to keep this system in place for a while. What the city allows is one thing; what I’m comfortable with is another.”
As the manager of Belle Epoque, the upscale absinthe-themed cocktail bar and restaurant behind the Old Absinthe House, Laura Bellucci is used to Bourbon Street’s raucous crowds — which is one reason she’s still not open. Her bar first opened in October 2019, kicking off a nonstop marathon through Mardi Gras that ground to a halt March 15.
Bellucci as well as several of her team members have immunodeficiency disorders, and there is no way she’s taking any risks. “I never thought being aware of a person’s health this way would be something I’d have to deal with as a manager,” she said. “But it’s brought all of us closer. I’ve been really proud of how my company has handled this — they don’t want to open just to have to close again like places in Texas and Florida.”
Bellucci is likely going to wait until New Orleans moves into the next stage of reopening (which has not yet been determined) and is monitoring the situation closely. “The more people drink, the more they ignore guidelines. And we’re on the biggest drinking street in the world.” When she does open, there will be a zero-tolerance policy for customers who flout the rules. “We only want people who will respect our standards of safety and cleanliness. If I lose business, so be it.”
When he opened his Marigny bar in February, DJ Johnson could never have imagined he’d have to close in mid-March. Johnson moved back to his hometown of New Orleans from Atlanta and changed careers, purchasing the pink building and adjacent space that used to be Gene’s Po-Boys to open his classy New Orleans Art Bar at 2128 St. Claude.
Offering a changing menu with New Orleans favorites like barbecue shrimp and chargrilled oysters in an art-centric space, Johnson is now open at 50 percent capacity from 4 to 10 p.m. during the week and until midnight on weekends. Masks are necessary to come in, and hand sanitizer is offered through the bar. “I’m optimistic, but it’s tough once you fall behind on bills. Because I only had six weeks of financial records, I couldn’t get [Paycheck Protection Program] money, and I’ve sunk my savings into opening this place. I’m starting to see some consistency. I’m hopeful.”
A pioneer of the craft cocktail movement in New Orleans and co-owner of Tales of the Cocktail, Neal Bodenheimer is a respected hospitality leader in the industry. He owns Uptown’s acclaimed cocktail bar Cure and co-owns French Quarter cafe Cane & Table. Both were closed for two months, until May 16, reopening at 25 percent occupancy with outdoor seating.
Bodenheimer says it’s almost like starting over. “We are wired to always default to hospitality, but safety is most important.” Trying out new strategies and using the process of trial and error, “We’re more like the 2009 Cure than the 2020 Cure,” he said. “This is an exceptionally reflective time. What’s scary is if there’s one issue, we could have to shut down. I’m not ready to go 50 percent — we have to be 100 percent ready for that.”
A lesson he learned from Katrina is to be present every day. “If you zoom out to the big picture, you won’t make it, because it seems impossible. Take one step at a time, and in six months, you’re in a different place. That’s disaster recovery.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the city’s restaurant industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.