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Iberville first in line for reopening of bars

Staff Report
A crowd enjoys the reopening of Beer Belly’s Saturday. Iberville Parish was the first parish in the Baton Rouge region to be given the go-ahead to reopen after a shutdown in August due to the pandemic.

If Iberville Parish residents wanted to recoup some sense of normalcy during the pandemic, their wishes came true last week.

Two weeks of positivity rates under 5 percent allowed barrooms across the parish to reopen Sept. 23, making Iberville first in the 12-parish Greater Baton Rouge region to receive the go-ahead from the Office of the State Fire Marshal to reopen and serve.

For Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, the news marked a sign that his parish is headed the right direction.

“At one point we were among the top 5 in the state in cases versus population, so this is a tribute to the everyone for following what’s in place,” he said. “The only thing that scares me is that we don’t set the rules on operation of the establishment, so I hope they full the rules set by the governor’s office. If we’re back to the 10 on positivity they’ll close again, and that would not be good.”

The end of the shutdowns does not come without restrictions. Bars and other alcohol-serving establishments can do business at a 25 percent capacity, with up to 50 patrons until 11 p.m.

Bars can reopen and offer tableside service only. The regulations prohibit bar service and standing by the bar.

It also limits outdoor capacity to 50 patrons for tableside service. Tables must remain socially distant.

Live music is also prohibited.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said he does not expect trouble with the reopening, particularly with the 11 p.m. closing time.

As with Ourso, it’s the progress that brings Stassi the encouragement.

“I just want to thank all the citizens of Iberville Parish for doing the right thing by wearing masks and respecting the science,” said the sheriff, who battled COVID in August. “To see that we’re getting the percentages down means we’re doing the right thing, and it’s also good for businesses because it’s their livelihood and the need to get back going again.”

On Saturday night, the livelihood seemed very much intact at Beer Belly’s Bar & Grill, a popular establishment on Main Street.

Even with after LSU’s loss to Mississippi State, the mood was upbeat in the pub that served as home of City Café from 1919 until its closure in 2006.

Cheri Jones mixes a drink for a customer at Beer Belly's.

Cheri Jones, a manager at Beer Belly’s, had a smile on her face as she mixed a drink for a customer.

She said she had not had much reason to smile over the last few months.

“This was my income and my livelihood,” Jones said. “What I went through the last few months was total hell … just very, very hard.”

For owner Jerry Bonner, the go-ahead came as a relief, even as he had already taken steps to resume business. He applied for a license to open as a food/ liquor establishment, allowed by the state.

Beer Belly’s owner Jerry Bonnin visits with a patron at his restaurant/lounge, which reopened last week.

The first day back in business was Wednesday, but then he got the call that bar restriction had been lifted.

“That same day, we got the call saying we could reopen,” Bonner said.

He had received notices of one day prior to the closure in March and the shutdowns in August.

The decision to keep bars close did not make sense, said Bonner, an Illinois native.

“I went back to Illinois last week and their businesses are open, and everything is good,” he said. “At least we’re open … I have 10 people who rely on this place for their livelihood, so I’m glad we’re back.

“We have the best, most loyal clientele anywhere,” Bonner said. “They missed us and we missed them … we’re glad to have them back.”