Throughout the pandemic, Gov. John Bel Edwards has used more of a soft touch than an iron fist to enforce his COVID-19 restrictions, typically directing agencies carrying out the orders to give businesses who break the rules multiple chances to get it right.
But over the last 10 months, more than 70 bars across the state pushed the envelope on that leniency and landed themselves in hot water with regulators.
Records from the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which has emerged as one of the few entities doling out punishments for business owners who flout the coronavirus rules, show at least 74 bars had their alcohol permits suspended for such indiscretions.
The violations are wide-ranging. Some bars went big: The Basin Music Hall in Baton Rouge was dinged for a 150-person party in late November, in which the front doors were locked, the windows were blacked out and people entered through the back. In Chalmette, Sully’s was similarly operating as a sort of pandemic speakeasy, with the 75 patrons entering through the back door, according to records.
At the other end of the spectrum, agents cited several small-town watering holes for having just a few people inside, at times when the governor had ordered bars in their parishes closed to indoor service.
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Some of the busts have a comedic, only-in-Louisiana quality. In St. Amant, for instance, ATC agents stumbled upon a parking lot cornhole tournament that begat a bizarre feud with the owner of Swamp Chicken Daiquiris. The bar’s owner shouted profanities and dared agents to arrest him, according to an investigative report from the agency.
In nearly all cases, however, the bars’ owners ultimately agreed to follow the rules after getting caught. Of the 74 establishments that had their permits suspended, only one — T&D Sportsman Paradise Bar, in Welsh — had its alcohol permit revoked permanently. Another bar, Wodes Chill Spot in Harvey, closed for good, and Club 425 in Lafayette still has a suspended permit.
Six bars, including several recently shuttered by local officials in New Orleans in a Carnival crackdown, are awaiting hearings.
New Orleans officials cracked down on bars flouting coronavirus rules and crews erected fences along North Claiborne Avenue over the weekend a…
The suspensions represent the sharpest tool at the disposal officials have to keep businesses in line with the COVID rules issued by Edwards, which limit occupancy and at times order bars to close.
Still, they remain a statistically small part of the state’s strategy to limit the spread of the virus at private businesses. The state Fire Marshal’s office has received more than 5,800 complaints about businesses breaking the rules since May, according to spokesperson Ashley Rodrigue. Those helped agents discover 1,778 violations.
But the Fire Marshal hasn’t issued any penalties, Rodrigue said. And the Louisiana Department of Health has only ordered two restaurants to close, including a Livingston BBQ joint that has defied the order in a case that is still being litigated.
Ernest Legier, commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, said the vast majority of bar owners come into compliance after a warning, and suspensions are relatively rare. But he noted a lot of residents and business owners have “COVID fatigue.”
“When you combine that with the fact that people are struggling to pay their bills, they’re relying upon these businesses to feed their families, there’s understandably going to be some emotion involved when you seek to stop them from earning a living through the regulatory process,” he said.
Much as the violations found at bars vary, so do the owners’ reasoning for breaking the rules.
Several owners said they were just trying to make some money to pay the bills, with the pandemic ravaging their business and little federal aid in the offing. Some were victims of their own success. A manager of City Bar, in downtown Baton Rouge, told regulators he tried but failed to keep the number of people inside under the allowable threshold.
For others, it’s a philosophical war. Timothy LeJeune, the owner of T&D Sportsman’s Paradise Bar, has laid out his views in a series of lengthy Facebook posts, calling Edwards a “tyrant.” In an interview, he said he doesn’t see his battle as political; rather, it’s about his “right” to stay open.
“I feel they had no legal right to suspend my license,” Lejeune said.
LeJuene can no longer buy alcohol from distributors because he lacks a permit. He said he’s staying open by having supporters bring in donated liquor.
His theory relies in part on a Facebook post made by Attorney General Jeff Landry, in December, which claimed the governor’s orders were null because of ongoing litigation between the governor and the state House of Representatives. In the post, Landry called Edwards’ orders “aspirational not enforceable.”
When enforcement agents visited LeJeune’s bar in late December to warn him he was breaking the rules, LeJeune told them, “we thought we could be open at that time, according to AG Landry’s post.” They told him he was wrong.
In an email, Landry spokesperson Cory Dennis reiterated the AG’s view that the Edwards administration has exceeded its authority. Dennis didn’t respond to a question about whether it’s appropriate for bars to operate using donated liquor after having their permit pulled.
“No agency has yet promulgated any rules that permit the arbitrary suspension of any business license or permit of any kind based upon the executive orders of the Governor,” Dennis said. “The Legislature suspended his powers to enforce these orders, and as a matter of law that suspension is effective.”
The governor’s office, which has yet to be defeated in a court case challenging his restrictions, has repeatedly said the orders are still in effect.
LeJeune’s defiance of the order led to the only instance in which the ATC permanently revoked a bar’s liquor permit for breaking COVID rules, said Legier, who was appointed commissioner of the agency by Edwards last summer.
The ATC regulates about 15,000 alcohol permits in the state, and only has 25 agents who handle enforcement, Legier said.
“In most cases we try whenever possible to partner with local officials,” Legier said. “Frankly sometimes locals are more cooperative than others. This thing unfortunately is highly politicized.”
Among the establishments to have a permit suspended was the Oasis, a combination outdoor volleyball court and restaurant in Baton Rouge. Owner Chris Shaheen said he’s not “anti-ATC,” and respects the job agents have to do.
At the same time, he said his cornhole league, held on the outdoor patio, has been shut down, which he doesn’t understand.
In New Orleans, local officials shut down several bars in the run-up to Mardi Gras, including some that locked the doors to outsiders and offered late-night service to unmasked patrons. On Friday, New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street will be closed from early on Fat Tuesday until Ash Wednesday. All of NOPD’s 1,100 officers will be on duty through Mardi Gras to crack down on gatherings, he said.
The recent crackdown in New Orleans was prompted in part by pictures circulated widely on social media, including one of a large and boisterous crowd at the Red Eye Grill in the Warehouse District.
Inspectors found patrons inside, unmasked and being served after mandatory closing time
A similar scene greeted agents with the ATC and Baton Rouge’s local alcohol regulator when they visited the Basin Music hall on Third Street downtown, in late November. They found the front doors covered from the inside with black curtains, and a row of bar chairs placed along the doors. A “large number” of patrons were standing and dancing with no social distancing or masks, according to an investigative report.
Brian Ott, an owner of the Basin, said after getting “bit” once by regulators, he doesn’t intend to reopen until the state allows him to.
He said his business has struggled with canceled bookings for live music, and federal aid hasn’t come close to making him whole. At times, he’s bought beer that has an expiration date and no way to sell it, and he said he saw other businesses hosting private parties because they had different types of permits.
“I don’t want to come off as we don’t care about the health of people,” he said. “We’re trying to do the right thing…We just want to operate our business.”
Some bars, including City Bar, have decided to take legal action. Edwards’ restrictions have been upheld repeatedly by courts, with judges relying on long-standing precedent that holds the judiciary shouldn’t second-guess elected officials in times of a pandemic.
Jimmy Faircloth, the attorney representing City Bar and others in a class-action suit filed recently in the 19th Judicial District, said the virus still raged even when bar owners “took it on the chin” and closed.
“You’re never going to stop that,” he said. “It’s a fallacy to think you’re going to control the spread of the virus by shutting down these bars.”
Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the state’s COVID numbers are trending in the right direction, and people should avoid bars as the more transmissible U.K. variant gains a foothold.
“As we have said from the beginning, bars are one of the highest-risk settings for COVID transmission,” she said.
Legier said he thinks the enforcement strategy is working. Once bar owners “realize the consequences of their action” — namely a suspension of their alcohol permit and fines — the vast majority decide to follow the rules, he said.
Even Swamp Chicken Daiquiris in St. Amant got its permit reinstated — despite the bar owner’s over-the-top reaction — about a month and a half after it was suspended on Nov. 28, records show.
When an ATC agent received two anonymous complaints that the bar was hosting a cornhole game in the parking lot, the agent showed up at the bar to meet with the owner, who identified himself to agents as Wesley Simoneaux. Immediately, Simoneaux started cursing, and “became irate,” according to the report.
“I’m not signing s—!” Simoneaux said after the agent asked him to sign documents about the visit, according to the report. Eventually, the owner “began poking” the agent in the chest, and dared the agent to arrest him.
“Take me to f—ing jail,” Simoneaux said, according to the report.
He earned an emergency suspension of his alcohol permit, but not an arrest.