Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory speaks during a town hall meeting Wednesday, June 24, 2020, at city hall in Lafayette, La.

Live entertainment and coronavirus are both surging in Lafayette, despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’s ban on one to help stamp out the other. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has openly defied the ban for nearly a month, while the parish he governs has become one of the worst virus hotspots in the state.

For Guillory, the governor's order has carried less legal force than the informal opinion of Attorney General Jeff Landry, who lives in the parish. 

Guillory on Friday announced several measures to help fight the recent surge of coronavirus cases. They include reinstating the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for minors, a ban on loitering downtown and increased compliance checks. Live music was not specifically mentioned.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office, which thus far has allowed the Lafayette Fire Department to take the lead on enforcing coronavirus restrictions, is now preparing new protocols that could derail the lax approach in Lafayette Parish. The fire marshal, Butch Browning, said his office will more aggressively seek out non-compliant business owners, and that he will deal with them personally.

The local fire department, like others around the state, will continue its enforcement regime, but Browning said state inspectors will soon begin showing up unannounced at restaurants, bars and other businesses. Browning said his goal is to resolve violations without punishment, but that rogue business owners could see their licenses revoked, among other measures.

“Not complying is going to be just literally a business owner that raises his hand and says you can tell me whatever you want to tell me, I’m just not going to do it. That is a problem, and that’s something that should concern everybody,” Browning said. “When we get to that type of impasse, we will determine if a cease and desist is necessary.”

Asked if he thinks hosting live indoor entertainment reaches that level of non-compliance, Browning replied “Yes, I do.”

Yet that is what Guillory has allowed for weeks, under the authority of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s June 5 letter to the state fire marshal — composed at Guillory’s request — opining that the ban is unconstitutional.

The governor’s Phase 2 order went into effect the same day. It allowed restaurants and bars and with food permits to operate at 50% capacity, and bars without food at 25%. The order itself did not address indoor entertainment, but it required all businesses to comply with further guidance issued by the State Fire Marshal.

The fire marshal’s guidance initially said indoor live entertainment was not authorized, with exceptions for disc jockeys and music played on a speaker system. The limitation specifically excluded bands and karaoke. Guillory, in a June 4 letter to Landry, said he thought the guidance was intended “to prohibit mass concerts in large arenas,” though he did not say how he arrived at that conclusion.

Guillory asked Landry for his opinion, and the attorney general followed with his letter to the fire marshal. Landry, who lives in Broussard, reasoned that the exception for disc jockeys violated equal protection. Landry also noted that guidance allows for “singing or instruments” at churches, but not in bars or restaurants — even though music in churches is not specifically addressed in the order or the guidance.

The six-paragraph letter is not a formal attorney general opinion, which would typically contain several pages of legal reasoning and a numeric index. The letter did not instruct Browning to do anything, and it is not clear what authority Landry himself thinks it carries. Landry’s office did not respond to repeated queries.

It was nevertheless enough for Guillory to order the Lafayette Fire Department to back off venue owners wanting to host indoor entertainment, contrary to the ban.

“I’m going to listen to my boss,” said Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit, when asked about the conflicting local and state orders. “As far as I’m concerned, until somebody tells me differently, I have to follow the AG’s opinion.”

Meanwhile, coronavirus has hit Lafayette harder in June than any point previously, though noticeable upticks in cases started in the middle of May. Including Friday, there have been 532 new cases reported in Lafayette Parish over the past seven days — easily surpassing the 313 recorded in the whole month of May. 

Earlier in the spring, while New Orleans and other parts of the state suffered some of the worst outbreaks in the world, the crisis seemed relatively mild in Lafayette. That prompted Guillory to request the governor to allow local officials to adopt looser restrictions than what existed at the state level.

“Here in Lafayette Parish, we are deeply fortunate that we are enjoying a high level of support and compliance from our citizens and local businesses,” Guillory wrote in an April 23 letter to Edwards, adding that “we are prepared to undertake the responsibility of ensuring that the reopening of our local economy takes place in a thoughtful and safe manner.”

Parishes are not permitted to adopt rules that are less restrictive than the governor’s; they are free to impose tighter ones, as New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has done. Asked if he would consider that option on June 19, Guillory said he didn’t think it was appropriate at present, but that he would keep an open mind in the future.

Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, did not respond to questions concerning the rationale behind Guillory’s decisions. Angelle said in an email that “we are working to get some clarification from the state,” without specifying what clarification the administration is seeking.

The guidance was revised June 12 to allow venues to apply for permission to host indoor entertainment. To get approved, venues must meet strict HVAC guidelines, and management must provide masks and temperature checks to patrons.

The first club to apply — the Texas Club in Baton Rouge — received approval. But within a week state health officials started sounding alarms about rising infections across the state, with the Lafayette area home to one of the most severe outbreaks.

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None of the 44 additional applications have been approved, and this week the fire marshal’s office started issuing an automatic response to applicants noting that “at this time, LDH does not concur with allowing live entertainment to proceed.” 

Following his June 18 presentation illustrating the recent outbreaks, the state’s assistant health secretary, Alex Billioux, noted “confusion” concerning live music while shutting down any notion that it would be allowed in the near future.

“I think the confusion arose because we are certainly welcoming people who want to present live entertainment to provide us with proposals for how they would keep their audiences and the entertainers themselves safe,” Billioux said. “To clarify, live entertainment is not in Phase 2.”

The health department confirmed Friday that it will not sign off on any indoor live entertainment in the near future. That includes at the Texas Club, which only received approval for one event, according to the health department. 

But venue owners in Lafayette have followed Guillory’s lead, with concert bookings and advertisements popping up across the parish. That has been good for some musicians, such as veteran zydeco player Chubby Carrier, who is currently booked for the Sunday evening showcase at Rock ‘N’ Bowl in Lafayette on June 28.

Carrier said he has lost money this year, particularly the income he usually earns by touring festivals around the country and world. But for Carrier the financial loss is secondary to the emotional toll, he said, since playing music for audiences is how he stays happy.

“If they happen to come by and say you can’t do it anymore, I will respect them with that, but in the same breath I will be broken,” Carrier said. “A lot of people just love playing music. That’s what we do here in southwest Louisiana.”

Carrier acknowledged personal concern about becoming infected with coronavirus from playing indoors, but he said he has decided not to live in fear while relying on his faith in God. For others, such as guitarist Major Handy, the risk is not worth it. Handy, 73, has endured multiple disasters in recent months: his house burned down in August last year, and he suffered a stroke in January.

Handy has since moved into another house, and he is recovering well from the stroke. He recently played an outdoor gig, but he is not tempting fate with coronavirus by playing inside. Handy and his wife, Frances, are getting by on social security and “mailbox money,” he said.

“We are not going to chance nothing about getting sick, because we will never get well, we are old,” Handy said.

Rock ‘N’ Bowl has regularly advertised performances, including Carrier’s gig on Sunday. It even posted a video of a June 10 concert on its Facebook page showing a packed dancefloor, filled with unmasked revelers.

Rock ‘N’ Bowl applied for permission to host indoor entertainment on June 23, after the State Fire Marshal’s Office started issuing blanket denials, according to the fire marshal.

Manager Johnny Blancher declined to be interviewed. In an emailed statement, Blancher said Rock n’ Bowl had “complied with all guidelines for reopening,” and had exceeded the HVAC requirements required in the application for indoor entertainment.

“(Rock ‘N’ Bowl) has met all requests and on-site inspections throughout the phases. Additionally, we have even built in days off and extra time before reopenings in order to take extra precautions in cleanliness and sanitation,” the statement reads.

Although state officials have not minced words in public comments — indoor live entertainment is not allowed — some business owners have found the guidance misleading, since it sets up a process for getting approved despite the health department's hard stance against it, said Stan Harris, executive director of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Harris also questioned whether a complete ban on indoor entertainment is necessary; he said the order ought to allow band members to be counted toward the venue occupancy limit, provided they comply with social distancing requirements.

Yet business owners using Landry’s letter to flaunt the governor’s order do so at their peril, Harris said.

“You are not going to be able to show (state authorities) the attorney general’s note and say this is what I’m relying on,” Harris said. “Is that what I want to stake my business reputation on? I’m not sure I would.”

NOTE: Rock 'N' Bowl announced it is temporarily shutting down its Lafayette location about 90 minutes after this story was published. Here is their full statement, posted on Facebook:

"Ye Olde College Inn Steak & Bank Bar and Rock 'N' Bowl has decided to temporarily not open beginning June 26th until some confirmation of when we can begin Phase 3. The current hostile conditions during the Covid period has made it untenable to function at a productive capacity. Thanks to the PPP money we were able to keep our staff going through these difficult times. That has been exhausted and to effectively continue we must get closer to operating at normal levels. We will return to normal business hours as soon as possible and we will be back serving great food, great cocktails and great times. Be safe and God bless!"

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