Bending over backwards: officials avoid punishing noncompliance of Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions

Downtown Lafayette's late-night bar scene Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

When the governor said at Tuesday’s Covid press briefing that state inspectors had “bent over backwards” to help businesses comply with state-mandated restrictions, he wasn’t exaggerating. 

State officials are making the rounds, but so far they’re taking little action. Meanwhile, the Guillory administration has ceded enforcement to those inert state authorities. Hospitalizations have again surged, amid heightening warnings from local and state officials. But enforcement does not go beyond pleas for compliance and good judgment. Records show there is at best inconsistent bite to the bark of Louisiana’s Covid restrictions, even as Edwards pulled the state back to Phase 2. 

State officials peppered compliance checks of a variety of businesses the weekend of Nov. 20-21, according to a review of state fire marshal and alcohol control records. Yet the Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control took action against only two bars. The fire marshal’s office assumed an even softer approach, explaining the restrictions to owners and managers who were in violation, hoping to encourage them into compliance. 

“We are following the directive of the governor,” says fire marshal spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue, “basically work with them until they are not willing to work with you.” 

Rodrigue says no official warnings are issued by her office and that it’s inaccurate to characterize the discussions with business owners as warnings. “Our visits are educational and in the spirit of cooperation. We need to give them a chance to do it right.” According to its reports, ATC does issue “warnings.”

The governor’s communications director, Shauna Sanford, says Edwards’ approach hasn’t changed. “This has always been the case and isn’t anything new,” she says in an emailed response. “We can’t enforce our way out of this, and it will take compliance from everyone to flatten the curve.” 

But businesses are taking advantage of Edwards’ restraint, records show. Despite Edwards’ comments Tuesday that the “overwhelming majority” of businesses work hard to comply, checks by both the fire marshal and ATC (and social media posts) reveal numerous instances of businesses openly defying the order. 

For weeks now, 501 Sports Bar in Youngsville has regularly had live music (video from Nov. 5 shows unmasked patrons dancing and singing), just as it did when ATC paid a visit on Nov. 21, according to the agency’s reports. The venue also had patrons mingling around and wasn’t offering table service; and neither employees nor patrons were wearing face masks, all clear violations of the governor’s emergency orders. The ATC agent met with the owner, Doug McCarthy, and explained the guidelines. “Owner was not very receptive and made excuses for almost all of the given guideline[s],” according to ATC’s report. It’s worth noting that 501 was among the bars that sued Edwards this summer, and has actively gathered signatures to recall him from office

On its Facebook page, 501 is advertising its “inaugural karaoke extravaganza for Sing Along Entertainment!” that’s scheduled for Wednesday. “We’re also bringing in Thanksgiving Eve with friends, family, and everything in between! You don’t wanna miss this!” Karaoke, like other live music, is not allowed indoors under the governor’s Phase 3 (or modified Phase 2) orders. Because of today’s parish positivity, 501 may be forced to close; as of Nov. 23, it did not have a conditional permit. The venue did not respond to a message left on its Facebook page. 

ATC pulled only two area bars’ liquor licenses in November. Both Jefferson Street Pub and Club 425 on Jefferson Street had their liquor licenses suspended pending a Dec. 10 hearing. According to ATC, both were issued warnings on Nov. 14 and were again in violation on Nov. 21. Matthew Sias, owner of Club 425, tells The Current he had four people in the club when the agent showed up — two customers and two employees who weren’t on the clock. Everyone was masked, he says, and only one of two people talking to the bartender had drinks in their hands (the bar stools had been removed). Sias acknowledges an agent showed up earlier on Nov. 14, but he says the agency only asked him to sign an acknowledgement of the rules. “It was never an actual warning,” Sias insists, noting that the Downtown bar scene had gotten out of hand for a couple of weeks as the governor battled Republican lawmakers in court. 

“It was crazy Downtown for some time period, but once they came around and said acknowledge the rules,” a number of bars made big changes, Sias says. 

The state fire marshal’s office visited just under 30 businesses in Lafayette Parish that late November weekend, records it provided show, and found multiple violations at two Downtown bars — Marley’s Sports Bar and The Office — and Young’s Sports Grill in Broussard. Both Marley’s and The Office were over capacity and not social distancing, and all three bars were found to be violating the mask mandate among staff and/or customers. Rodrigue says no one was cited, but the findings were turned over to ATC. While the fire marshal can take punitive action, ATC is a bigger threat to these bars, as it has the ability to suspend the bars’ liquor licenses, in essence shuttering them temporarily until a hearing can be held.  

Sias is confident he can prevail at the December hearing, but says Wednesday’s positivity report of 11 percent in Lafayette Parish would have shut him down anyway. The club is his main source of income, Sias adds, and his landlord has contacted him about his plans. He has no idea what he’ll do next: “I just don’t know.”

Not every bar faces the same closure. More than two dozen Lafayette Parish bars that now operate under conditional restaurant permits may stay open. Almost 400 bars across the state and about a third of Lafayette Parish’s 110 bars recently obtained conditional restaurant licenses, which allow them to operate under rules for restaurants. That means tables have to be spread out for socially distant seating, customers must remain seated, and the venues have to sell more food than alcohol. Under the modified Phase 2 guidelines, capacity is reduced from 75% to 50%.

Food audits will be frequent, to probe for businesses exploiting the loophole egregiously. State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux tells The Current he’s been assured by ATC that bars with conditional permits will have their sales audited regularly. On Nov. 21, Grouse Room on Jefferson Street, which holds a conditional permit, was given five business days to “surrender invoices.” ATC would not comment on the matter. Grouse Room’s owner, Matt Chiasson, declined to comment by phone or text, and we were unable to connect with him in person. An ATC spokeswoman says alcohol permit holders are subject to inspection and audits “to determine whether a business maintains the minimum requirements of the type of permit the licensee holds.” In a Facebook post today, Grouse Room advertised its food menu and invited patrons to come by to “enjoy its unique food.”

Still pushing for wider compliance and enforcement, Sen. Boudreaux intends to hold a press conference with state enforcement officials in Lafayette Tuesday to ensure everyone is on the same page. “The commissioner of ATC visited Lafayette last weekend, and I’m bringing him back to town next week,” Boudreaux says. It doesn’t look like they’ll get much, if any, local assistance. 

A Wednesday email from Fire Prevention Chief Forrest Chaisson to Captain Joseph Lange of the Lafayette Police Department and other officials makes clear that the Lafayette Fire Department is no longer investigating complaints. In the email exchange, obtained by The Current, Chaisson says that the complaints are being entered into the state’s OpenSafely System and that only the fire marshal, ATC and LDH will investigate them. Previously, the Guillory administration acknowledged it had suspended local enforcement of state restrictions. Since then, faced with spiking cases that again have Lafayette Parish among the worst affected, Guillory has promised local agencies are “doing the best they can.” 

The medical community is also sounding the alarm about the potential for spread at local bars. 

“My wife has a gallery Downtown, and I was doing some work late and passed through Downtown and saw the number of people and was absolutely appalled at what I was seeing happen in the middle of a pandemic,” Dr. Henry Kaufman IV, Lourdes’ interim chief medical officer, told The Current Nov. 18. The data may not yet show that’s where infections are coming from, Kaufman acknowledges, but he thinks it’s only a matter of time. 

“There’s no question in my mind personally that it’s a huge risk and if you wanted to spread covid, that would be an ideal circumstance. A large packed bar, music venue, people in close proximity, no masks, loud talking, lots of aerosolized droplets, plenty of potential for spread amongst multiple individuals at a time,” he continues. 

“Not enforcing the masking regulation and the other things that have been put into place out of concern for the overall public good, to me is equivalent to not enforcing traffic regulations.”