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COVID surge taking toll on Baton Rouge restaurants, hospitality industry again

The restaurant and hospitality industry is starting to feel the effects of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Groups are canceling or postponing events, in-person gatherings are going back to virtual, and dine-in restaurant business is noticeably down.

So far, the decrease is not dramatic or devastating, but some establishment owners are getting nervous.

“We’re starting to get cancellations for private, catered events,” says Brad Watts, who owns Kalurah Street Grill, Cecelia and The River Room. “Birthday parties, corporate events, fundraisers. That’s 30-35% of my business.”

It’s like déjà vu all over again, though this time it’s not government-mandated capacity restrictions causing the heartache. Customers are nervous about the highly contagious delta variant of the virus ripping through a state that remains one of the least vaccinated in the nation.

Among signs of the slowdown:

• Stephen Hightower’s City Group Hospitality, which owns six restaurants in the market, has had about 10 private event cancellations in just the past few days, and Hightower says weekend dine-in attendance was off slightly, though that may have been, in part, due to the traditionally slow weekend before the start of school.

• Bergeron’s Catering has had three or four large events cancel or reschedule since last week, as well as several smaller events—corporate board meetings and trainings. “They’ve gone back to Zoom so they canceled their lunch orders,” chef Don Bergeron says.

• A handful of small conventions that had planned to meet this month in Baton Rouge have put off their gatherings, which Visit Baton Rouge President and CEO Paul Arrigo says would have brought fewer than 100 attendees each to the city. VBR is trying to reschedule the events for later this year or early 2022.

• At least two of the largest planned fundraiser galas of the season—Baton Rouge Best Dressed Ball and Fête Rouge—have rescheduled for late October.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.

Currently, all events, concerts and performances scheduled at the Raising Cane’s River Center are still a go, as is the Baton Rouge Blues Festival.

Also, restaurants have adapted during the pandemic, and are able to offer more outdoor seating and to-go orders—both of which have been in demand in recent days.

“Our to-go orders over the weekend were up 10% over the weekend before,” Hightower says. “And a lot of people wanted to sit outside, even in the heat.”

Similarly, Red Stick Social announced Tuesday morning that it would move its live music shows to the outdoor deck for social distancing purposes, while the bowling lanes would remain open and private events inside are still a go.

Paradoxically, at least one restaurant owner says his phone has been ringing off the hook in recent days, with customers wanting a reservation for dine-in service.

“People are terrified they’re going to make us shut down again,” says Louisiana Lagniappe owner Kevin Ortego. “So they’re trying to get in before the ‘shutdown,’ though I don’t think that will happen again. People won’t tolerate it.”

This story originally appeared in an Aug. 9 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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