Liz Breaux says Red's Levee Bar is "legal as can be" and has been for nearly 70 years, even though the small bar in rural St. Martin Parish has been without an alcohol permit for the better part of a month.
The bar, which is attached to Breaux's home in the community of Catahoula, temporarily lost its permit after the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control on Dec. 3 investigated a complaint against the business and found that the bar was serving six people "without social distancing and not wearing a mask," according to court documents.
Instead of negotiating with the ATC to get its license back, which often happens in similar cases, Breaux chose to sue Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards.
"I am a small business owner, and I'm just fighting for my rights to make an honest living and help other people out while doing it," Breaux said. "I haven't gotten rich, and I don't plan on getting rich by running my little bar. This is a legacy that my mommy and daddy opened in 1952, and I'm just keeping on the legacy."
The lawsuit claims the governor's COVID-19 restrictions are not in effect while Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry appeals 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant’s ruling that a move by state House Republicans to nullify those restrictions was unconstitutional.
A St. Martin Parish judge agreed on Dec. 15 to temporarily block enforcement of the restrictions against Red's Levee Bar. That decision was reversed, however, during a Dec. 28 pre-trial hearing when the judge heard arguments and ruled to remove the injunction.
"I had someone at the bar, ready to open with customers waiting outside to support me, when the decision came in," Breaux said.
Breaux will go before the ATC this week to find out if her bar's alcohol license will be reinstated or revoked.
Red's Levee Bar is one of 59 establishments in Louisiana that have received suspensions for "habitual non-compliance" with COVID-19 restrictions, according to ATC Commissioner Ernest Legier.
None of the 59 have had their alcohol permits permanently revoked.
"Suspended businesses are placed on probation and execute an agreement in which they agree to abide by compliance rules," Legier said. "Should those rules be violated within the term of the probation, a predetermined penalty is automatically instituted."
Enforcement actions are somewhat rare, considering the agency has conducted more than 10,000 compliance inspections in the past eight months.
Business owners with suspended licenses have generally gone before the ATC and agreed to follow the guidelines set forth by the governor to have their permits reinstated.
Jeff Wittenbrink, the Baton Rouge attorney representing Breaux's case, said he plans to negotiate with the ATC, mentioning that he would appeal the decision if the license is revoked.
"A lot of these bar owners become intimidated and decide they're going to simply comply, regardless of what the law actually is, because if they comply, then they can get their license back and they can sort of limp along like everybody else," Wittenbrink said.
There's hope that the end of the pandemic — and the restrictions that have come with it — is in sight now that COVID-19 vaccines are finally being administered in Louisiana.
The population awaiting vaccination far outnumbers the number of available vaccines, however, as the third surge of the coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana rages on.
Edwards’ administration has largely shied away from issuing penalties against businesses who run afoul of the rules, which require reduced capacity, masks and other restrictions. Instead, the state Fire Marshal’s office or ATC typically send staffers to ask the business to follow the rules.
The ATC commissioner could not comment on specific cases, including Red's Levee Bar, but Legier did share the thought process behind the agency's enforcement actions.
"In most cases, business owners are working very hard under extraordinary circumstances to do the right thing. As a result, our agency has only pursued suspension and fines in the most egregious of circumstances," Legier said.
"Recently, however, a small group of business owners have taken a position which directly challenges the authority of the agency. These permit holders have chosen to ignore rules and suspension orders issued by the agency. In lieu of arrest, which is authorized by statute, I have made the decision to issue revocation orders in these cases. If upheld after hearing, an offending business will have its permit revoked, will not have the ability to purchase alcohol from wholesalers (as required by law), and will be subject to local authority discretion as to whether they will be arrested and prosecuted for selling alcohol without a permit. These businesses should take note that a revoked permit will not be reissued."
Breaux said Red's Levee Bar has not been open for business since Dec. 27, the day before the St. Martin Parish judge ruled against the bar.
She has, however, admitted to having people inside of the bar in the two weeks since then.
"It's connected to my house, so it's like an extension of my home. Every once in a while, my friends or a few people will come over, but they bring their own beer, so I'm not selling anything," Breaux said during a Jan. 6 phone interview. "Tonight, I have my first cousin, my best friend and a girl that works for me over here. We're sitting underneath the patio right now, and if it gets too cold, we're going to sit inside."
Wittenbrink, who represented the Rev. Tony Spell after the pastor held massive church services early in the pandemic in violation of the governor's orders, said he believes bar owners like Breaux are being unfairly targeted.
"Bars should be treated the same as restaurants. They should be held to the same standards. They're not truly different," Wittenbrink said.
The lawyer actually contracted COVID-19 early into the pandemic and spent two weeks in the hospital before returning home, where he needed supplemental oxygen for two more weeks.
What sustained him during that time, Wittenbrink said, was his faith in God and his fight against the governor's restrictions.
Wittenbrink said he has recently spent time at a bar inside of a restaurant with a much greater capacity than Red's Levee Bar. He said none of the customers were masked as they drank in the restaurant bar.
It's an example of why he believes the governor's restrictions are unfair and why he thinks Breaux has a case worth fighting for.
"I just remember sitting there, feeling really terrible for my poor client in St. Martin Parish who doesn't have a restaurant attached but could be serving drinks in exactly the same configuration as this place in Baton Rouge," Wittenbrink said. "The rules are arbitrary. They don't make sense. And it's a horrible, horrible injustice upon all these people who are not being allowed to do business."
Breaux said her customers have the right to accept the risk that comes with mingling with people, sometimes unmasked, in an enclosed space.
She's known plenty of people who have become sick with the virus and even a few who have died as a result. Her friend and fellow bar owner in nearby New Iberia died of COVID-19 complications, Breaux said, noting it's unclear how he contracted the virus.
"Doyle Copell, who was 60 years old and perfectly healthy, passed away from it," Breaux said. "He was all about life and loving everybody. Just a good person and businessman. He even made a joke when the coronavirus first came out. He had a picture with two cases of Corona here in New Iberia. Bless his heart. He left behind a beautiful wife and kids, but I'll tell you this: He didn't feel like it was right that the bars were being targeted."
Staff Writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.