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Dispatches From New Orleans

March 26, 2020

Story: Leslie Pariseau

art: Nick Hensley


Dispatches From New Orleans

March 26, 2020

Story: Leslie Pariseau

art: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

New Orleans, perhaps more than any other major American city in recent memory, has experienced devastation of an unimaginable degree. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of businesses were forced to rebuild from scratch or reckon with foundations that were irreparably broken. On Monday, March 16, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all bars to close without an option for takeout or delivery service. For many locals, it felt like a scenario much worse than Katrina. “I can’t go elsewhere and fix my life,” says Kirk Estopinal, New Orleans native and co-owner of Cure and Cane & Table. “You can’t get away and start fresh. What city are you going to go to?”

With a population of almost 400,000 and a service industry force of nearly 100,000, our city is reliant upon hospitality. And, here, hospitality is deeply entwined with music, art and culture. When the bars go dark, the music stops too. Today, in this moment, the scale of the damage and its aftershocks is simply unimaginable. New Orleans is fueled by the gesture of gathering. Every Sunday, we stream into the streets to follow brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians down the boulevards. Each evening, we stand outside of bars, sit on porches, and hang ourselves out windows with to-go cups in our hands. We celebrate Carnival for a full month, and then some. The people of this city thrive on being together.

Though I'd been visiting New Orleans religiously every year since 2007 before finally relocating, I am still new here. And though it’s emerging as an epicenter of the virus, I feel very lucky to live in a place whose soul has been bent and bruised, reshaped and wrung out—and ultimately alloyed by its trauma. Maybe it’s just me (and many of the people I’ve spoken with over the last week), but I think it’s safe to say that we are clinging to optimism, and feeling grateful to not have to know what it means to miss New Orleans right now.

Chris Hannah | Co-owner, Jewel of the South and Manolito

Long a recognizable face behind New Orleans’ bars (first at Arnaud’s French 75), Hannah was in the middle of planting a garden when reached by phone. After shutting down his 30-employee operation at Jewel of the South, he’s turned his attention to Manolito, a tiny Cuban bar which continues to serve takeout as well as its famous Daiquiris.

Sunday [March 15] was the last shift we were open. We realized we had to close it down and only do takeout, but we didn’t understand what was going on totally. It became clear we were going to have shut it all down. We’ve been doing a lot of cleaning, moving out all the perishables, put the meats in the freezer. We made just over 50 cocktails and sold those with some takeout food. We just took all the bottles away from the bar, and put them someplace safe. You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t think this is a looting situation like during the hurricane though.

I’m at Manolito right now, where we’re still doing takeout and delivery. Employees from Jewel who aren’t working can walk over and get free to-go meals. Red beans and rice, meatball sub, the Cuban [sandwich]. [Here,] I’m starting to do what a lot of people are doing: planting stuff. I went out to Home Depot and bought little planters to try to grow some peppers, herbs, marigolds and sunflowers for whenever we open up. I thought edible flowers for drinks would be nice.

It’s really kind of sad. We finally got a year in [at Jewel]. We were figuring out how to be successful and be a good part of New Orleans, to be a nice place for people walking around the Quarter. Locals and tourists. To think we’re going to open in a month—I don’t think so. I just wonder when things are going back to normal. I’m trying to think of 2006 [post-Katrina] when everybody came back to the city.

Veronica Foxworth | Co-owner, The Sandpiper Lounge

A historic, black-owned neighborhood bar where you can still get a set-up (a pint of liquor, a mixer and a bowl of ice) and listen to the jukebox, The Sandpiper Lounge’s neon sign has, by Foxworths estimation, flickered Uptown for at least 70 years. Due to a four-year street closure in which the city was continually delaying drainage work in front of the bar, Foxworth and her brother and co-owner, Benjamin Simmons, were already concerned about the state of their business before having to close last week.

At this point, everything’s closed down. We don’t have a restaurant so we’re unable to even open the doors. If you open the doors, you lose your license. It’s not worth the risk. It’s hard dealing with the fact that you have no income coming in.

It’s emotionally draining. It’s depressing in this state. You still have to pay notes. You have to pay insurance. We’re in the process of renewing insurance and if people don’t want to renew it you have to find another lender. As of yet, the city hasn’t offered any assistance. There’s nothing we can do to cut back. You have to keep your [refrigerators] running with your beer in it so it doesn’t go bad. You lose your product, you lose your income. It’s a lose-lose situation.

For me, it’s worse than Katrina. Because, Katrina you could go somewhere else and go to work. I was in the medical field, so I went to Texas. [Now], you literally can’t do anything if you don’t have a way to make money on the internet or other financial means or if you’re not a saver. The streets [in front of the bar] were closed for four years. The city was doing drainage work from [Tchoupitoulas] to Claiborne. It took ’em that long. We got no assistance, no compensation, not a penny. If that had been Bourbon Street it would have been a different story.”

Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal | Co-owners, Cure and Cane & Table

In a city of old-school cocktail joints, Cure was New Orleans’ first new-wave cocktail bar at its opening 11 years ago (there is also a location in the airport). Cane & Table, a cozy, tropical Quarter-based restaurant and bar, opened in 2012. Both were forced to close without the option for takeout or delivery this last week.

NB: We’ve been fighting and clawing and scratching up until this past Monday. A week ago tomorrow, I said I don’t want to make any decisions until I go into the Louisiana Restaurant Association meeting. We were talking about how we’re going to get through this, and then the governor called in and said we’re going to shut down all restaurants and bars. There were a lot of operators in the meeting—there were 500 RSVPs—right as people realized we weren’t allowed to congregate. I’m an optimist-slash-realist, mostly, but I think I left that meeting thinking we don’t have a way to do what we do. There’s just no way if you look at a restaurant like Cane & Table, the amount of overhead—rent and food and booze and wine. The business isn’t built for that. We had to make hard decisions: Do you stay open and hemorrhage money or close and maybe not hemorrhage? What everyone was faced with was getting [their employees] hooked up to benefits on a federal and state level as quickly as possible.

KE: As soon as tourism in the city dries up, nothing in the French Quarter makes sense in my opinion. We all depend on that. New Orleans has built itself upon a tourist economy as long as I’ve been alive and that’s a rough bet in situations like this. The thing that’s keeping me sane are the hundreds of practices we’ve had with hurricanes. That gives me some hope for what can be in the future, but also it’ll be nebulous for a while. All we can do is make some guesses at what the future is like.

I see people in other cities selling cocktail kits to try to make ends meet. I wish there was some order from the state that would allow us to operate in some kind of manner. I’d like the opportunity to try. It’s crazy because we’re in a Catch-22 where we’ve got a lot of population, but can’t open [at Cure] and another location that’s perfectly permitted, but no one really around it [at Cane & Table].”

I have moments of tears and dread. I have moments of hope. I don’t know how to start or end. The last time I went through something like this, my life was changed in a radically amazing way, but it took time—it took five years. I’m trying to keep my mind in that space. The responsibility of being an employer—that’s the hardest part, is not knowing what’s going to happen, if everyone’s going to make it. I feel like I have kids in the world [who] I can’t 100 percent take care of.

Suzanne Accorsi | Co-owner, Pal’s Lounge

The Cheers of the Bayou St. John, Pal’s Lounge has been around for 18 years. Suzanne Accorsi, who also owns Martine’s Lounge in Metairie and Tavolino Pizza & Lounge in Algiers Point, was endorsing unemployment claims when reached by phone.

We were open and then we were closed. Now I’m opening unemployment claim letters so people can get their $247 a week. We’re still here cleaning, but we’re not employed. We did survive Katrina, and we were shut down from the end of August until around Thanksgiving. I think bars will fare a little better than restaurants because their infrastructure is so much less heavy. But who knows how it will look as far as business. I’m confident that we’ll come back and make it happen, but it is a little scary. You don’t know what it’s going to look like. One of my employees said, “Well at least they didn’t cancel all the festivals, they just postponed them.” There will hopefully be a lot of business, so that’s a bright spot. We’re trying to find the things to keep our spirits up, to keep us from crying into the beers we don’t have.

Lisa Zumte | Bartender, The Chart Room

Known as Miss Lisa to her patrons, Zumte has tended bar at The Chart Room, a locals’ dive in the French Quarter, for over 40 years. Owned by Brett Alexander (whose father used to own the building) and Mike Batten, this corner nook has been open since 1973.  

Being a bartender, I’m never home at night. I didn’t realize how bad television was until now. It’s been a week today since they shut the bars down in New Orleans. Time seems to be going by very fast, and very slowly all at the same time. I was here for Katrina. I left the day the levees broke. We were closed for three weeks. I remember driving back, thinking, this city will never be the same again, nothing will ever be the same again. When I got back it was horrific. But I was amazed at how busy it was. All the FEMA people, all the emergency workers, were here. Almost 15 years later it’s amazing to me how fast the city came back. Now it’s full of people that are New Orleans, that love New Orleans. I have a feeling it’s going to be the same thing when we get back to work. We’ll all pull together and make a comeback. I hope it’s the same for the rest of the country and the rest of the world. The human spirit is an amazing thing. In the meantime, we just have to bide our time.

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