New Orleans restaurants, bars hoped things would be better by now — They're not

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“We don’t know what will be different in December … we don’t know what will be different by the end of this week.”

NEW ORLEANS — When we spoke with local bars and restaurants back in May, there was hope that the coronavirus shut down would be a distant memory by now.

Three months later, not much has changed.

“On the business end, it’s like everything’s basically the same as it was in April,” Cole Newton, owner of Mid-City’s 12 Mile Limit and the Bywater’s The Domino, said.

When we last spoke to Newton in mid-May, Louisiana’s Stay at Home Order had just expired, and restaurants were allowed to open at 25% occupancy. 12 Mile Limit and the Domino function primarily as bars though, which were eventually allowed to reopen at limited occupancy under Phase 2. 

“We weren’t setting any records,” Newton said. “We were still losing money, but we were losing money slow enough that it was like ‘OK, we can sustain this for a while.’”

Since then, New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole have settled into a modified form of “Phase 2” where bars have been completely shut down.

Newton understands why New Orleans bars were closed, but he said if nothing changes, his businesses may not survive.

“We run out of money at the end of the year,” Newton said. “That sounds so far away, but then again August sounded so far away in April — and we’re in exactly the same position.”

Just like in April, he’s exploring what can be done with a restaurant permit and is looking at what can be done with takeout and delivery.

“Basically, what I would want to do is be able to operate, not like a restaurant, because restaurants require on-premise consumption and that just doesn’t feel safe right now. I would rather be able to legally and temporarily operate basically like a liquor store where we could do delivery and we could do take out,” he said.

Uptown’s Cooter Brown’s has been operating as a restaurant since we last spoke with them. Bartenders are now working as servers and all food and drinks are served tableside. Gonzo Bereciartua, a manager at the bar-turned-restaurants, says the change has worked out well.

“I think when we started this conversation, I mean like three months ago, four months ago, there was no telling what was coming our way,” Bereciartua said. “So, I’d say all things considered it’s worked out well enough. I’m glad I’m still employed … I know not everybody is as lucky.”

The usually crowded bar now has carefully spaced out seating and new outdoor area set up to accommodate more customers. Operating at less than half their capacity isn’t a winning formula for any business though.

“We’re not losing money, but we’re kind of on that line right now,” Bereciartua said. “But at least it’s enough to keep everybody employed and the bills paid and all that.”

RELATED: New Orleans institutions laying off hundreds with no end to pandemic in sight

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Pizza Delicious in the Bywater is operating on that same fine line. The local pizza joint closed their dining room to protect their employees, doing delivery and take out only.

Co-owner Mike Friedman said they’re lucky their business revolves around pizza, something people already frequently get delivered.

“We can keep our doors open this way and get through to, like, December before having to maybe take a harder look at things,” co-founder Mike Friedman said. “We’re by no means killing it, but I feel like we’re lucky to be doing enough to be around breaking even … that is kind of what I feel like everyone is saying their goal is right now, through the end of the year.”

Anything can happen between now and the end of the year though. It’s a nerve-wracking reality that everyone is facing.

Several high-profile Louisiana restaurants are making major cuts to their workforce. According to our partners at The New Orleans Advocate | Times-Picayune, Commander’s Palace is set to lay off 240 workers and Arnaud’s will lay off about 150 workers.

Overall, 74,000 jobs have been lost in the Metro New Orleans area over the past year. Unemployment in New Orleans is at 12.9%, up from 5.2% last June.

Restaurants, bars and every business affected by the coronavirus are hoping federal leaders will pave a way forward. But in Washington DC, lawmakers are on recess until September.

For the unemployed, that means the end of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit and a federal ban on evictions. President Trump’s executive actions could provide a temporary reprieve, offering $300 in jobless benefits and some other aid. But it could take weeks for those programs to ramp up.

“We don’t know what will be different in December … we don’t know what will be different by the end of this week,” Friedman said. “I just hope our customers keep showing up for us. We’re super grateful to them.”

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