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The Basin Music Hall, a music venue opening in Baton Rouge at 336 Third St. It's located in a historic building downtown.

State health officials have applied the brakes to bar owners' applications to book live music indoors across Louisiana because of a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

In early June, state leaders acquiesced on a hard ban for live music indoors during a Phase 2 reopening of the economy after the Attorney General's office said in part of an opinion that allowing churches to have live music but not bars could raise constitutional issues because they are similar situations and should be treated the same.

The Attorney General's office did not respond to questions about whether it would step in again in an attempt to overrule the health department.

On June 12, the Fire Marshal's office, which is tasked with ensuring reopening restrictions are being followed, quietly amended Phase 2 guidelines for bars and restaurants by opening a process for them to apply for live music approval if they met additional restrictions and standards.

About 45 businesses across the state have applied for permission in recent weeks. Then on June 26, the guidelines were amended again, without much fanfare, to expressly prohibit live music indoors as part of Phase 2.

That decision was prompted by concerns at the Louisiana Department of Health, which refused to allow businesses permission, even to businesses that met or exceeded requirements laid out. The Fire Marshal's office began sending out rejections on June 22 to all the live music applicants.

"We know this is a hard time for many, including for business owners, but we must continue to be driven by the data," said Aly Neel, spokeswoman for the health department. "Given what we currently know about COVID-19 spread and our recent alarming trends, that meant firmly moving live entertainment out of Phase 2. The virus dictates the timeline, not us."

The health department contends that live music, particularly singing or instruments blowing large amounts of air, can contribute to the spread of the disease and requires more than six feet of social distancing indoors. The state pointed to contact tracing results, which found bars and private parties have resulted in outbreaks.

"Given the demographic shift Louisiana has experienced toward young people in coronavirus infections and what we know about exposure through contact tracing, we have pressed pause on any approvals for permitting live music," Neel said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' office acknowledged the policy change, but deferred to public health officials about the decision. 

"That was about 3½ weeks and more than 22,000 new COVID-19 cases ago," said Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the governor's office. "We're working with businesses to determine the best way for them to be open safely and right now the public health experts advise us that this does not include indoor live music."

It was a big blow to businesses that rely on live music. Owners in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette say they are struggling to survive and need guidance to plan for the future — that is if they have one.

The Texas Club in Baton Rouge was the only bar approved in the state for one performance in mid-June but hasn't hosted any live music or karaoke indoors since.

Co-owner Mike Rogers is concerned about such a hard line approach to public health after weeks of protesters — both those gathering to demand reopening of the economy in front of the Governor's Mansion and those in the streets calling for social justice after the killing in Minnesota of George Floyd by a police officer — were largely void from restrictions or contact tracing results released so far.

"I think the hardest thing to accept is the double standard. All of a sudden bars are the bad guy but protests aren't and private events at home aren't either," Rogers said.

During the Parish County Line concert at the Texas Club in mid-June, customers largely did what the venue required, he said. There was no dancing, everyone was sitting down and at the time masks were not required in East Baton Rouge Parish.

"I think that if you follow the directions and your customers are willing, we are just as safe as anybody else," he said. "I just don't understand why they think that it's so dangerous to have a band play. What's the difference between a band and a DJ? We're not trying to rock the boat," he said, just trying to save the industry before it's gone.

Rogers conceded that inviting an audience is a risk, even if it's for 250 or fewer customers in a location that holds 1,000 people and has ample room and distanced seating.

"None of our employees have gotten sick so far but every time you open up you are exposed," said Rogers, who is in his 60s. "But I just find it hard to live in fear; but we don't know if people even want to go out now" after the surge in new infections.

The Texas Club has since canceled all other acts scheduled, even a comedian expected in August, just to be safe. That comes at a price.

"I don't know if live entertainment is going to be viable in the future. The bills don't stop," said Rogers, who has been in the music business for 42 years.

When the club is open with only a DJ, there are roughly 100 people who show up, which isn't enough to sustain 35 employees full time, nor does it support the sound equipment company and all its suppliers.

"We are a people (in Louisiana) who like to get together. This is a drastic change," he said. "A storm only lasts a few days. This is like you wake up and you're still in the middle of a hurricane. It just doesn't let up. I can see us lasting until January, but after that I think we're history."

For other venues, like Grand County Junction in Livingston Parish, shows are only once a month and not the only source of income for owner Greg Sullivan.

Grand County Junction hosts family-friendly shows and is not a bar but was also denied by the state.

"We understand the situation. We don't want people getting sick coming to our show, but ultimately people have to decide for themselves if they want to go out and what they want to do," Sullivan said.

The venue is a sit-down theater, and hosting events outdoors isn't practical, he said.

"People have asked that, except that it's 95 degrees in the middle of the summer and we don't have access to light at night. It's better if we just wait," he said.

That's the plan for The Basin Music Hall in downtown Baton Rouge, which had also booked bands in anticipation of hosting live music indoors. The venue even asked the city about the possibility of a permit to host a concert in the street if cordoned off, but was denied.

"We're just operating at minimal hours, since we're a live music venue and not your neighborhood bar," said Brian Ott, co-owner of The Basin Music Hall. "We definitely don't want to be part of the problem but if (the state) could just release the guidelines for Phase 3 ahead of time, it would help so that way we could at least plan our future."

The owners waited for approvals before buying plexiglass barriers or extra air conditioning units as additional protections against spreading the coronavirus, but still has not been able to host a show in months.

"There's too much unknown, we can't get (more) national acts if we don't know if live music would even be in Phase 3," Ott said. "We had a lot of stuff booked, we've postponed all our national acts."

In the interim, the music hall has been lending out the venue for free to local artists to livestream music and for charity fundraisers as a closed studio space.

New data shared by the state collected by contact tracers shows that bars are a significant location for coronavirus outbreaks, though specific locations were not disclosed. Many bars and restaurants across the state have closed voluntarily in recent weeks after workers tested positive to spend time cleaning and disinfecting the venue.

In New Orleans, the city has enacted more stringent restrictions than the state and banned live music during Phase 2.

Even so, a Frenchman Street bar and restaurant was bullish live music would be a possibility during July. Dozens of musicians were booked during the montgh at Bamboula's Frenchman Theater. The location hosts up to 500 musicians each month throughout the year.

Bamboula's began preparing to potentially reopen by purchasing ultraviolet light filters for its air conditioning system to get its venue up to par. It was planning to rehire bartenders, cooks and servers and counting down the days to approval.

"We don't have garage bands. We have quality musicians from around the world," said Vaughn Mordenti. "If we don't have music, we don't have people — whether it's tourists or locals."

Even with capacity restrictions profitability would have been an issue. Still, the owners wanted to move forward.

"It's like a yo-yo going up and down. I was set to go, but I can't do it," Mordenti said. "When the governor says yes you can and the mayor says no, it gives you a mixed message."

The silver lining of the situation is that for now, the workers are getting unemployment benefits with an extra $600 each week until near the end of July and don't have to risk getting sick, he said.

"Musicians are struggling, especially professionals. This is ruining their lives," he said. "This city is built on music and art. I get phone calls constantly from all over the world about when we're going to open. The best thing that could happen right now is that we get a vaccine."

In Lafayette, the relationship between health officials and bar owners is most tense and it was businesses in that metro area that pushed for ways to start hosting live music indoors again.

Ye Olde College Inn Steak & Bank Bar and Rock'n'Bowl temporarily closed as of June 26, "until some confirmation of when we can begin Phase 3," according to a Facebook post.

The company was unable to stay open due to "current hostile conditions during the COVID-19 period" and had already spent all of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan it received to pay workers.

"That has been exhausted and to effectively continue we must get closer to operating at normal levels," the statement continued.

The Rock'n'Bowl had submitted an application for live music indoors on June 23 but was denied.


Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.