Baton Rouge restaurants and businesses react to Louisiana’s loosening of restrictions

The restaurant and business communities are welcoming Gov. John Bel Edwards’ announcement Tuesday, March 2, that the state would move into Phase Three beginning Wednesday, March 3, which allows most establishments to increase capacity and enable bars to open indoors for the first time in months.

“I’m ecstatic,” says Stephen Hightower, whose City Group Hospitality owns and operates six restaurant concepts across the city. “The biggest thing is it will help us to be able to seat more on the weekends. That is where the 50% (Phase Two guidelines) hurt us the most.”

Under the Phase Three guidelines, restaurants and salons will be able to move to 75% of their capacity and indoor gatherings, and event centers will be capped at 50% of their capacity but limited to 250 people.

Bars in all parishes will be able to open for indoor service at 25% capacity, and those in parishes where the COVID-19 positivity rate is 5% or lower for two consecutive weeks can have indoor service at 50% capacity, not to exceed 250 people. Alcohol sales still must end at 11 p.m.

“It’s exciting to be able to open your doors and let people into your business again,” says Brian Biaimonte, who co-owns Radio Bar and Mid City Beer Garden. “For Radio Bar, which doesn’t serve food, it’s really going to make a big difference because we’ve followed the rules and during these past two cold, rainy months, it hasn’t been very desirable for people to sit out on the patio—even under the heaters.”

Because establishments must still maintain social distancing by spacing tables, smaller restaurants may not be able to accommodate 75% capacity.

“For our smaller restaurants it’s not going to do that much for them,” Hightower says. “But for Rouj (Creole) and Beausoleil, we’re going to be able to pick up three or four more tables that we’ll be able to put back in there. If you can turn three or four tables two and a half times per night, that works out.”

The announcement was also good news for venues like the Crowne Plaza, a large hotel and conference center, which has been limited to events of just 75 people. General Manager Scott Michelet, whose grand ballroom can seat more than 1,200, was still awaiting formal written guidelines from the state to clarify whether he is limited to 50% of capacity or just 250.

Either way, the relaxing of the rules “will definitely help us,” he says.

Gym owners, though, were disappointed by the announcement. Under the Phase Three guidelines, gyms and fitness centers will remain at 50% of their capacity, which the governor’s office says is based on recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that raises concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in these settings.

“I don’t see how they can relax the rules for the restaurants and not for us,” says Donnie Jarreau, whose Regymen fitness centers have been operating at just 10%-15% capacity since the health clubs were allowed to partially reopen early last summer. “But it is what it is. Everyone likes to complain. You just have to get up and figure out how to make it work.”

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President and CEO Stephen Waguespack says the Phase Three move is a step in the right direction.

“[The] announcement is an encouraging light at the end of a long tunnel, but our state still has tremendous economic challenges to address,” Waguespack says. “The business community remains committed to doing everything we can to get small businesses back on their feet, get our citizens back to work and rebuild our shattered economy. We look forward to legislative opportunities in the upcoming session to do just that.”

This story originally appeared in a Tuesday, March 2, edition of Daily Report. To keep up with Baton Rouge business and politics, subscribe to the free Daily Report e-newsletter here.

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