Few American cities can claim a bar and drinking culture as intertwined with their mythologies as New Orleans. The port city is a fabled destination for its expert boozing and “go-cups” — the beloved alcoholic beverage served in a to-go cup, available for purchase at most of the 1,400 establishments with liquor licenses in the city. Empowered by the ability to roam city streets cocktail in hand, visitors find themselves stopping in and out of bars, gathering around street performers, making new friends. By the end of a weekend, it may inspire a new sense of self-will in the visitor — “Why can’t I walk around with a drink as I please in my city?”
But for a surreal few months, while cities across the country enacted temporary or, in some cases, permanent laws allowing restaurants and bars to sell takeout alcoholic beverages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Orleans’s legendary go-cup sales were halted. Similarly, the city’s bars, closed for on-premise consumption but allowed to offer curbside service in the rest of Louisiana, were shut down entirely, as well as the area’s ubiquitous drive-thru daiquiri shops. Restaurants dependent on takeout alcohol sales amid the loss of full-capacity dining rooms were suddenly without that lifeline. Residents, even those supportive of the extra-cautious route city government in New Orleans had taken throughout the pandemic versus the state’s, were stumped.
The ban on to-go drinks has since been lifted, first from restaurants and more recently bars, though not before a prominent local bar owner’s online petition gained steam and some of New Orleans’s favorite neighborhood dives closed for good.
So what does drinking in New Orleans look like in the future? Public health experts have said it’s futile to predict where the virus will be in eight weeks time, and perhaps the same can be said of the bar industry. But to imagine the longterm impact of the pandemic, it’s important to understand the roller coaster the industry has been on the last six months.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards closes bars in the state and limits restaurants to drive-thru, takeout, and delivery services, following similar moves by other states. The announcement is on the heels of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell order limiting hours and capacity for bars and restaurants. It would not be the last time over the next six months where the two officials would seem to be implementing guidelines entirely independent from one another.
The CDC issues a report saying that Mardi Gras 2020 contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, though no officials or public health experts recommended its cancellation at the time.
Gov. Edwards announces that restaurants and bars can resume dine-in service at a reduced capacity Friday, May 15, as part of the first phase of reopening the state. Dine-in restaurants, bars that offer food, and casinos will be able to operate with a maximum occupancy of 25 percent; bars without a food permit remain closed. New Orleans announces the same guidelines the next day, with the caveat that restaurants should have a plan in place for contact tracing.
One week after the rest of Louisiana moves to allow bars to reopen at 25 percent capacity, New Orleans follows suit on June 13. After weeks of lockdown, crowds flock to the French Quarter when New Orleans enters phase 2 of loosened restrictions, allowing bars without food permits to open at 25 percent capacity for the first time since the city’s stay-at-home order. Restaurants and other establishments open in phase 1 are allowed to increase capacity from 25 to 50 percent.
Following complaints against Lakefront restaurant Felix’s and Irish Channel bar Tchoup Yard later in the month, the city announces a task force would ramp up enforcement of COVID-19 safety guidelines at restaurants and bars.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell announces that beginning Saturday, July 11, restaurants and bars would be restricted to table service only, meaning no sitting at or ordering from the the bar. Just a few days later on July 13, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards orders bars closed to on-premise consumption, but allows them to remain open for curbside service. The order applies in New Orleans, with the mayor applauding Gov. Edwards’s decision.
The following week, on July 24, the mayor makes the unexpected announcement banning takeout alcohol sales and ordering bars closed entirely in Orleans Parish effective at 6 a.m. the next day. The order seems to have been prompted in large part by gatherings on Bourbon Street and the “visual” of crowds in the French Quarter. City officials said at the time that large groups continued to gather throughout town, “triggered” by the sale of to-go alcohol. The Mayor’s press conference announcing the ban repeatedly references the optics of large groups, saying it can incentivize individuals to gather elsewhere in the city. Ultimately, she says, “our bar community will suffer as a result of this decision, but it’s one that has to be made to get our kids safely back in the classroom.”
On September 10, Gov. John Bel Edwards announces that Louisiana will enter phase 3 of reopening the next day, September 11, but that specifics were forthcoming. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell responds the same day by saying that regardless of the governor’s guidelines to come, New Orleans “will continue in phase 2 and not move forward with easement of any restrictions.” While detailing phase 3 on September 11, the governor announces the surprise, somewhat confusing guideline that bars will be able to reopen on a parish-by-parish basis. Parishes that report less than five percent COVID-19 positivity rate for two consecutive weeks will be able to “opt in” to reopening bars at 25 percent capacity for a total of no more than 50 people, all seated for table service.
Two weeks later on September 25, the Mayor announces that restaurants in New Orleans are allowed to resume the sale of takeout alcohol, effective that evening, allowing for drive-thru, takeout, and curbside services. Bars in the city remain closed entirely.
New Orleans is moving into phase 3, Mayor Cantrell announces on October 1, but the city’s phase 3 will have three stages of its own. Phase 3.1, effective October 3, allows restaurants to increase their indoor capacity and lets bars, closed in Orleans Parish entirely since late July, to open for curbside service. In phase 3.2, which the city could enter as early as October 16, allows bars to offer outdoor seating, and in phase 3.3, which could begin October 31, to resume limited indoor seating.
Looking ahead to Mardi Gras 2021, it’s all but confirmed at this point that there won’t be official celebrations, i.e. parades and balls, during Carnival season or on the holiday itself. But there is no doubt New Orleans will celebrate, parades or not. And if the city continues to meet positivity rate benchmarks laid out earlier this month, there will be both indoor and outdoor seating at bars when Mardi Gras rolls around in February. Although for now, the city’s remaining bars just hope to keep their doors open long enough to be part of the celebration.
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the city’s bar and restaurant industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at [email protected].