For decades, bars along Bourbon Street have had an open-door policy, enticing anyone over 21 to walk in at all hours with drink specials, blaring music and neon lights. Come in, order a drink and carry it back out to the street, if you like.
City and state officials want to put an end to this easy access, and they are proposing the bars close their doors at 3 a.m. — but remain open for business — in an effort to curb violence that has stained the city’s image.
“I don’t see what the point is in it,” said Earl Bernhardt, owner of Tropical Isle and other clubs on and near Bourbon. He worries the policy might affect his bottom line. “We do a lot of business after 3 o’clock.”
Officials hope a simple closed door will diminish the intensity of on-the-street, alcohol-fueled hoopla that has, at times ended abruptly in gunfire. They say it’s not a curfew for a city known for all-night partying.
“Right now, the doors are open, so it’s an open pedestrian party at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu told reporters this week. “We’re going to try to encourage them, through changing their environment, that it’s going to be a little bit more comfortable for them to go inside the bars, which they’ll be able to do until whatever hours they want to.”
The closed-door initiative, which needs City Council approval, is one part of an anti-crime program Landrieu, city officials and Gov. John Bel Edwards unveiled this week. The city is dealing with a depleted police force and a murder rate that spiked last year to 175 killings. It had reached a 43-year low of 150 in 2014.
The plan calls for more early morning street sweeping in the French Quarter, as well as the use of high-tech gadgetry such as license plate readers and high-definition cameras to keep an eye on the crowds.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Hebert said he was unaware of any other city with a similar closed-door policy and that most other cities have a time when bars must completely shut down.
“What we wanted to do was come to a middle ground,” Hebert said.
Security expert Cynthia Deloach of Atlanta-based THG Consultants said it could help bar managers keep a closer watch on traffic, preventing someone excessively drunk or under-aged from entering. Conversely, it could keep trouble from spilling into the street.
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health, said the policy might give police and cameras a clearer view of the streets, while encouraging bar patrons to stay inside might help with crowd control.
But, Scharf said, it’s a Band-Aid solution in a city where violent crime is “a gushing artery.” And Bourbon Street isn’t a hotspot for violent crime compared with other parts of the city, he noted.
Indeed, few of last year’s homicides took place on Bourbon or in the surrounding French Quarter. Officials emphasized that the anti-crime plans are to apply city-wide. Another step lets officers who live in the city take home patrol cars so they can park them in neighborhoods.
Still, violence on Bourbon brings unwanted international attention to the tourism-dependent city. In 2014, a gunfight broke out between two men at 2:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning, leaving a visitor dead and nine other people wounded, including tourists from neighboring states and Australia. It was a similar story last November when a dispute broke out between two out-of-towners. The resulting gunfire around 1:30 a.m. left an uninvolved Baton Rouge man dead and nine others injured.
Landrieu’s proposal was met with skepticism from some, but not all, on Bourbon Street one recent evening. After all, fights in bars are almost as commonplace as the booze.
“What do they expect to accomplish?” asked Dawn Kesslering, a longtime bartender at Johnny White’s. “Are they trying to keep the people in the bars from emptying into the streets? What does closing the doors do?”
Gafur Tursanov, of Miami, said it might work if all the bars cooperate, but added: “I don’t’ think it will really do a lot.”