Is Coronavirus Turning America Into Bourbon Street?
More than 30 states are now allowing some form of to-go cocktail, while their proverbial home, New Orleans, just started banning them. We break down what’s going on.
As if you need more proof that the End Times are nigh and the sun will soon rise in the West and set in the East, consider that within one week last month two things happened: Massachusetts passed legislation allowing cocktails-to-go and New Orleans banned them.
Massachusetts is, of course, the state where the Puritans landed and never left. In a story I wrote last April for the Daily Beast, I quoted Cambridge bar manager Emma Hollander firmly asserting, “Massachusetts will never let us take a drink outside anywhere for the rest of our lives.” Yet, Hollander is still very much alive, and on July 20 Governor Charles Baker signed Bill S.2812, “An act to expand take-out/delivery options in response to COVID-19.” Cocktails can now go outside into the light of day.
New Orleans, in contrast, is known for its decided dearth of puritanism—it is the nation’s chief distribution center of laissez-faire licentiousness. However, five days after Massachusetts opened its doors to cocktails, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell closed her city’s doors to them. She announced that effective the next morning all bars and restaurants were henceforth forbidden from selling drinks to go—something that had been permitted even in the darkest days of the pandemic. With the lord as my witness, the fabled drive-thru Daiquiri stands were also ordered shuttered.
The tale of these two decrees tells an interesting story. But it just might not be the story that you’re expecting. And with laws changing quickly regarding go-cups and drinks-to-go nationwide, it may be a story worth listening to.
Let’s start with the north. Is Massachusetts turning into New Orleans? Short answer: No, it is not. The Massachusetts law has all the joie de vivre of burlap underwear. For starters, it expires this February—it’s not so much a sea change as a ripple. What’s more, drinks sold must be in sealed containers and must be in the company of take-out food. And once these beverages depart a bar or restaurant, they must be secured in the trunk of a car or somewhere inaccessible to driver and passengers. Harvard Square is not at risk of becoming Bourbon Street.
And that brings us to a not-insignificant point about this recent wave of drinks-to-go legislation. Laws governing drinking outside of licensed establishments come in two flavors, and the pandemic has mostly affected just one.
This first flavor are laws that govern bars and restaurants with liquor licenses. Generally, legislatures have historically enacted these rules to ensure that adult beverages remain within the walls of said licensed businesses, to help keep chaos off the streets. The second set are laws that govern consumer behavior—generally, strictures against drinking alcoholic beverages in public, such as in parks, on public beaches or on the street.
Since spring, many bars across the country have been temporarily shuttered or allowed to operate under restrictions. Some have reopened at reduced capacity. Others reopened and then were shut down again. Quite a few bars have run up the flag and surrendered, closing for good.
States and cities have not been wholly without sympathy for bar owners, which explains the upsurge in laws allowing drinks-to-go. Laws have been liberalized in more than 30 states, which now allow bars to deliver drinks with food, or allow customers to walk out the door with mixed drinks.
These laws are basically emergency life rafts. We have shut you down for reasons of public health, the reasoning goes, but here is a small and slightly leaky raft to help keep you temporarily afloat. The details of these laws vary widely. Many apply only to sealed bottles of beer and wine—but don’t allow bar-made cocktails. In Florida, cocktails are allowed if sold in “reasonable containers.” Michigan passed a law (in effect through 2025) that allows go-drinks with some restrictions—for instance containers can’t have straw holes and must have labels reading: “Contains alcohol: Must be delivered to a person 21 years of age or older.”
Now let’s look south.
New Orleans has allowed drinks to walk out the door since the 1960s—it’s often reported to be the first American city to allow this in modern times, but I can’t confirm or refute this fact. What started as a Mardi Gras tradition—buying a large vessel of some lurid drink from a bar’s window—was overlooked by the authorities for years during carnival season when enforcement of liquor laws was traditionally lax.
Bourbon Street at the time was morphing—the act of sitting down in a dark club for a drink and a show was quickly becoming something only for snobs and squares. The hippie counterculture flourishing at the time much preferred to hang out on stoops and streets, maybe smoke a joint and sip something cheap.
Ever accommodating, the city made the go-drink legal around 1968. Bar owners on and near Bourbon Street capitalized on this by converting available doorways, windows and alleyways into small takeaway bars. Changes and challenges to the ordinance came and went, but by 2001 laws permitting drinking on the streets were finally codified, and included a ban on metal or glass containers. Window sales boomed; the go-cup became an institution.
Go-cup culture on Bourbon Street was essentially a Möbius strip—the parade of free-range inebriates attracted gawkers, which in turn attracted more street-side bars, which attracted more tourists marveling at the impressively Hogarthian scene.
Then came 2020. New Orleans was hit early and hard by the coronavirus. The city shut down bars and restaurants in mid-March, although with the lifeline of take-out drinks. As the Covid curve flattened, the city allowed restaurants (and bars with food permits) to reopen at reduced capacity and with other restrictions, such as banning seats along an actual bar, which puts strangers in close proximity to each other.
Then came the reemergence of Covid-19 in July, with Louisiana spiking sharply (New Orleans less so). Taking no chances, the mayor literally closed the window on go-drinks—bars couldn’t serve drinks either inside or out. Bars without food licenses went dark. The city offered no raft, leaky or otherwise.
It actually weren’t the drinks going out the window that provoked the shutdown. It was the congregating on the streets with drink in hand, as allowed by the city’s lax open container law. And congregate they did—crowds formed under the summer sun along Bourbon Street and beyond, maskless so as not to impede the consumption of cooling beverages. The city reported that contact tracers had run down some outbreaks back to street gatherings. Being outdoors may slow the spread of the virus, but it’s now clear that it doesn’t fully prevent it.
The city didn’t ban drinking on the streets, but it did prohibit go-cups with the idea of discouraging tippling mobs from forming outside. It was done to keep the drinking masses contained within walls, where presumably it would be easier to enforce mask and distancing policies. The new ban is open-ended—the city says it will be lifted when the spread of Covid-19 infections is better contained.
So upon closer inspection the world is not quite upside down. Massachusetts (and other states) that have permitted to-go drinks, but with significant restrictions, as a gesture to help businesses. New Orleans—the largest city in a state with currently the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the U.S.—has taken draconian if temporary steps to slow the spread of a pernicious disease.
Yes, one sometimes hears that the pandemic is irrevocably changing everything everywhere. But a better filter might be one that simply sees the changes in the world accelerating because of the virus. Liquor laws were bound to soften in much of the nation—cocktails want to be free, to burst through the walls that have kept them caged. Even in Massachusetts.
And as for New Orleans? Perhaps this portends a less licentious future, the installation of guardrails where none existed before.
Then again, this might just be a pothole on the road back to party city.