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New Orleans bars see few customers as lockdown restrictions are lifted, but live music venues stay shut

Many bar owners in Bourbon Street are upset at the prohibition of live music and hope that their businesses will see better days soon
UPDATED JUN 15, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As Covid-19 social-distancing restrictions are beginning to ease, bars in New Orleans are re-opening, but the same can't be said for live music venues. The bar owners began letting customers in on June 13 for the first time in months with the capacity limit set at 25%, according to Billboard. As live music remains prohibited, it is hard to say how many tourists will show up on Bourbon Street amid coronavirus.

Owner of six French Quarter venues, Pam Fortner, is opening only two of them and both are on Bourbon Street, which is commonly known to hold lively frat parties. The area was shut down in March due to the pandemic. As Fortner awaits an increasing number of customers, she is hoping that "Saturday will be busy," she revealed in an interview. Cherie Boos, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop manager, said she is hoping locals will help sustain them as Bourbon street revives. She added, "We’re hoping that, you know, we can start generating some tourists in the city, too, now that the bars are going to be open."

The uncertainty that Bourbon Street owners face is also due to the slow re-opening allowed only in recent weeks. Dine-in restaurants are allowed to reopen at 25% capacity and the same goes for bars with food permits. Traffic has been slow and numerous tavern windows were plywood covered until Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the latest easing of restrictions on June 9. Even as they announced the reopenings, city officials admitted they were concerned about a possible spike in coronavirus cases, especially after New Orleans experienced one of the fastest growths in new cases globally, in spring.

Cantrell said at a news conference, "Oh, I’m worried. I am worried," and added that city code enforcement officials will watch to make sure social distancing, masking requirements and building capacity limits are enforced. City's health director Dr Jennifer Avegno said that customers should be wary of the risks as well. "If you’re there, with your household group and you’re having drinks at a table at a bar, we really need you not to go off and mingle with the other tables," she said on June 9. While restrictions were eased for New Orleans bars, some of their owners are critical of the restrictions toward music venues. "Why are they picking on the musicians?" said Fortner.

Meanwhile, some locales like the Maple Leaf, a venerable late-night bar and music venue in the Carrollton neighborhood, chose not to open. A post on Maple Leaf's Facebook page reads, "While our City leaders have decided to allow bars to reopen... we will not be allowed to have Live Music and what is the Leaf without our musicians?"

Toward that end, there will be no musicians on stage at Fortner’s Tropical Isle bars on Bourbon Street. That prevents people from congregating near the stage and eliminates the possibility that a singer belting out a song could also be unknowingly spreading the virus. This fear has kept the city from allowing live music performances, including choirs in churches. Some New Orleans bar owners are critical of the restrictions. 

One of the quarter’s best-known tourist spots, Pat O’Brien’s, also didn’t plan an immediate reopening. Manager Shelley Waguespack has numerous concerns as she decides when and how to reopen. She’s hoping the state legislature will address one concern — liability. She said she worries about getting sued if someone who visits the bar later comes down with Covid-19. She’s also unhappy about the limits on live music. "We wanted to put a piano player on the patio," Waguespack said. "We thought that would have been lovely."