A Metairie wedding venue owned by the family of Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken has continued hosting large receptions over the past several months, some of which allegedly had over 200 guests, despite state restrictions on gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Van Vrancken, along with her duties as a council member, works as an employee and paid consultant for the venue, Balcony Ballroom. And she has repeatedly lobbied state officials on the venue’s behalf, using her government email to send at least three emails to State Fire Marshal Chief H. “Butch” Browning in May arguing that the business should be allowed to operate.
The reports of large, improper gatherings at the venue come from five complaints filed with the State Fire Marshal’s office, an inspection report from the Fire Marshal’s office, photos and email records obtained by The Lens, a wedding video on Facebook and interviews with two workers who asked that their names not be published due to concerns that they could lose their jobs.
The business hasn’t been cited or shut down. But that is hardly notable — the Fire Marshal has yet to issue a formal citation to any business found to be flouting coronavirus restrictions, a spokesperson told The Lens. And the current evidence on Balcony Ballroom doesn’t meet the threshold that would trigger a closure by the Louisiana Department of Health.
According to the complaints, Balcony Ballroom has been hosting weddings since May — when the state was in phase one of reopening the economy — with live bands, dance floors, and buffet dinners with guests that weren’t wearing masks or properly social distancing.
One of the anonymous workers that spoke with The Lens — who isn’t directly employed by Balcony Ballroom but works in the venue as a vendor — estimated that there were roughly 220 guests at a late July wedding she was working. She said that aside from the people working, almost no one was wearing a mask.
“Maybe two or three guests were wearing masks,” she said. “It was 100 percent a normal wedding. The first dance happened, the DJ says the dance floor is now open and I was getting bumped into. It was 100 percent a pre-pandemic wedding from that point on.”
A video posted on Facebook last month shows a wedding ceremony in a church, where guests appear to be socially distancing and wearing masks. The video then cuts to the reception at Balcony Ballroom, showing dozens if not hundreds of people wandering around and dancing in front of a live band. Almost no one in the video, aside from the workers, is wearing a mask.
And photos obtained by The Lens appear to show a different July wedding at Balcony Ballroom with a similar scene with another dance floor, as well as a group photo with over 200 people, none of whom are wearing masks.
“It was shocking to have spent so many months concerned about everyone’s health around you and also yourself, and then to immediately put in an extreme situation as if this had never happened,” the person who worked the July wedding said. “I was really anxious about that for myself and for them and for their families and for my family.”
An email from a general Balcony Ballroom email address to The Lens claims that all of “the complaints contain inaccurate and false allegations.”
The State Fire Marshal’s office received its first coronavirus-related complaint about Balcony Ballroom on May 26, less than two weeks after Louisiana moved from a restrictive stay-at-home order to phase one of reopening, which allowed some businesses to reopen at reduced capacity. An anonymous caller warned the office that the venue was planning to host a wedding reception on May 30, despite restrictions on large gatherings.
“In phase one, wedding receptions were not allowed,” Ashley Rodrigue, Public Affairs Officer for the State Fire Marshal’s office, told The Lens. “Event centers were not allowed.”
The day after the first complaint was filed, Van Vrancken and Browning spoke on the phone, according to emails obtained by The Lens. The councilwoman followed up with an email on May 28.
“The purpose of this email is twofold. First, to help clarify that indoor wedding gatherings (and indoor funeral gatherings) are permitted in Phase 1. Second to help clarify that a particular business situated in my council district is a restaurant establishment and as such, is permitted to operate at 25 percent capacity.”
The “particular business” she referred to was Balcony Ballroom in Metairie, which her parents have owned and operated for decades. But Van Vrancken has more than just a familial connection to the business. On a 2018 financial disclosure statement to the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Van Vrancken said that she worked for Balcony Ballroom as a “consultant/employee.” In an email to The Lens, Van Vrancken confirmed she is still a part-time employee.
Van Vrancken used her Jefferson Parish government email to communicate with Browning. The Lens asked Van Vrancken whether she was communicating in her capacity as a councilwoman, or as a paid consultant for her family business.
“My communications as a councilmember to the fire marshal were seeking information and guidance on the Open Safely Program on behalf of businesses in my district,” Van Vrancken told The Lens in an email. “The Balcony has been my family’s business for 46 years. I am a part-time employee. I work on behalf of all businesses in my district and disclose all my financial interests in accordance with all ethics regulations.”
Dr. Robert Collins, Professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University, told The Lens that the communications don’t appear to constitute a legal ethics violation, but that there were clear ethical lapses if you apply “the common sense test.”
“I don’t see a clear legal conflict of interest simply because the State Fire Marshal has to enforce these rules and that’s a state office, so the Jefferson Parish Council has no actual legal jurisdiction over the Fire Marshal,” Collins said. “But I think any objective observer would say this is highly unethical, from a political ethics standpoint. A public official is generally going to be given a certain amount of leeway by another public official that the private citizen wouldn’t.”
The first argument Van Vrancken made in her email to Browning — that indoor wedding receptions were allowed at 25 percent capacity in phase one — was shot down by the Fire Marshal’s office.
“I recall in that conversation that they felt they were able to be open because the press release associated with the Governor’s proclamation on phase one said ‘wedding,’ when that meant a wedding ceremony in a church, not reception,” Rodrigue said. “So nonetheless what was determined was that receptions and other gatherings are not yet allowed.”
The Fire Marshal’s office did agree, however, with Van Vrancken’s second argument — that Balcony Ballroom could still operate under the rules laid out for restaurants because it had a restaurant permit.
“With regard to The Balcony Ballroom, an establishment located in Council District 5, I have attached documentation provided by the business that unequivocally establishes it as a restaurant,” Van Vrancken said in an email to Browning.
She sent Browning Balcony Ballrooms’ restaurant permit, most recent state health department inspection, permit to operate as a food service establishment, occupancy capacity as well as certificates showing that the proprietors had completed the health department’s food certification training and testing program.
“Thank you for the information you provided, and the important service your business provides,” Browning responded.
On May 29, the Fire Marshal’s office ruled that although typical wedding receptions were not allowed, Balcony Ballroom could still operate, technically, as a restaurant. In phase one, restaurants were allowed to operate at 25 percent of their normal capacity.
According to Rodrigue, the owners were told that “if they would like to manage something like a restaurant because of their permitting allowances, they could.”
“It is unusual,” Rodrigue said. “And that’s been part of the trick of it. Because we’ve had several other event centers across the state that have either received complaints or that have called to ask. And we say, ‘What’s your permit?’ And they always have a caterer’s permit, which makes more sense as an event center. But for whatever reason, this particular venue has always had a [restaurant] license. So with the way the restrictions are, we can only do what the law says.”
Though the venue, in the eyes of the Fire Marshal’s office, is operating as a restaurant, interviews, photos and social media posts from Balcony Ballroom show that the business has not transitioned into a full service restaurant. Rather, it’s using its restaurant permit to continue operating a wedding hall, but under restaurant capacity limits.
“I was informed they were a restaurant,” the anonymous worker said. “Ok, sure, if that’s what you want to call yourselves.”
Louisiana entered Phase Two of the economic reopening plan on June 5. That allowed restaurants to up their capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent their normal capacity. At first, the new rules allowed wedding receptions to resume and permitted gatherings of up to 250 people. But on July 13, due to increasing infection and death rates from the virus, the state rolled back those new provisions to allow gatherings of up to just 50 people, including at wedding receptions.
The Fire Marshal’s office began receiving new complaints about the venue shortly after the July 13 rule changes.
“Complainant advises this business has continued to hold events above capacity, with bands, for a number of weeks,” says one of the July complaints.
According to the complaint document, the office conducted an inspection on July 14. According to the document, the owners said they had stopped hosting live bands and that they were advised by the Fire Marshal’s office “to familiarize themselves with capacity guidelines.” Another complaint in July indicated that four days later, the venue had another large wedding with upwards of 200 people who weren’t using masks or social distancing.
A third complaint from July claimed the business was “bribing couples to pull away from event venues who are abiding by the Governor’s regulations and have their reception there while they are breaking all the rules.”
“I felt the need to inform you of this venue deliberately putting people in danger,” the complaint said.
The Fire Marshal’s office followed up with an inspection on July 31. Most of the charges leveled against Balcony Ballroom in the complaints, however, couldn’t have been happening because there was no event occuring at the time of the inspection and there were no patrons present, according to the inspection report.
“A business doesn’t have to tell us what their schedule is,” Rodrigue said. “So that’s where event centers are more tricky than restaurants and bars and retail stores that are opened for regular business orders.”
The Lens asked Balcony Ballroom to respond to the complaints as well as two photos that, according to Rodrigue, were taken at a July 18 wedding that shows hundreds of people crowded together without masks as well as an active dance floor.
“With respect to the pictures, they are undated photographs that accompany allegations that were fully investigated and determined to be invalid,” the Balcony Ballroom email said in response.
However, the State Fire Marshal’s July 31 inspection notes that “representatives acknowledge hosting event on 7-18-2020 as documented.”
During the July 31 inspection, the business was provided copies of Phase Two guidelines for “re-education,” according to the inspection report. The Fire Marshal’s office also lowered the business’ capacity limit.
According to Rodrigue, the venue was operating under the phase two rules that allowed restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity. Balcony Ballroom had calculated its capacity by taking their standing room capacity and cutting it in half. That wasn’t valid, Rodrigue said, explaining that there are several different ways to determine 50 percent capacity limits under the new rules. One of those is giving every person 30 square feet of space.
“So we ran the square footage for them and divided by 30 and came to a number of 120,” Rodrigue said. “Then they did the upper area which gave them additional amount of seating, if you will, because as they mentioned ‘we’re all still sitting, cause we’re a restaurant.’ And so the total number I believe they came up with was 148.”
That’s where things stand now, according to Rodrigue. She explained that her office, in general, is primarily working to help businesses understand and get in line with the rules, not shut them down.
While the office hasn’t issued a citation for Balcony Ballroom, it also hasn’t issued a single citation statewide for violations of coronavirus business restrictions, according to Rodrigue. Several businesses have, however, been shut down by the state Health Department or Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
“Browning made it very clear that our role going forward is going to continue to work with businesses, to educate them because we definitely understand that the rules change frequently,” Rodrigue said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding because of that. So it’s only fair to work with businesses to make sure they understand everything clearly.”
‘They have been ignoring most of the safety rules about guests’
In an anonymous complaint to the Fire Marshal in July, one Balcony Ballroom employee said she believed that enforcement at the venue was lax due to the venue’s connection to Van Vrancken.
“They have been ignoring most of the safety rules about guests,” the anonymous employee said, according to the complaint. “I have brought it to the owner’s attention and have been threatened. I called the State Fire Marshal and the state, but someone at the business told me the owners’ sister is Jennifer Van Vrancken, who is on the Parish Council and I believe this has stopped any enforcement.”
The State Fire Marshal’s office, however, told The Lens that there is a high bar for citing or shutting down a business. Rodrigue said that state action against a business can be spurred in one of two ways — a blatant refusal to follow the rules or documented repeat behavior.
Rodrigue also explained that the state isn’t just looking for businesses with repeat violations, they’re looking for businesses that repeatedly violate the same rule. So, for example, if a wedding venue exceeded capacity limits one weekend and violated mask requirements the next, that wouldn’t be considered repeat behavior.
Rodrigue gave the example of Peking Buffet, a Ruston restaurant that the Louisiana Department of Health shut down on Friday.
“We have a restaurant up in North Louisiana that has a buffet. These people have been given so many conversations. At this point I think on their record they have seven visits, and only on two of them have they been in compliance. The rest of them, they keep allowing customers to serve themselves at the buffet. … The last two times they were visited, the owner basically said, ‘It’s not working for me.’ So in that instance, it becomes less confused, and more ‘I’m just not doing it.’ ”
But even with Peking Buffet, state action seems to have been sparked by a blatant refusal to follow the rules, rather than documented repeat behavior. In the case of Balcony Ballroom, Rodrigue said there was only one clear “hit” on its record — improper masks, dancing and people wondering around at the July 18 wedding.
“While there’s so many complaints, there’s not so many findings.”
Van Vrancken didn’t respond to a question from The Lens about whether she had been in contact with Browning regarding Balcony Ballroom since May. Rodrigue said she wasn’t aware of any additional conversations.
“I sought guidance for all [Jefferson Parish] business that contacted me seeking assistance and clarification of the new rules,” Van Vrancken said.
Van Vrancken said she reached out to the Fire Marshal because of widespread confusion among businesses with constantly changing restrictions and allowances. She provided The Lens with another email chain between her and Browning on June 4 where she advocates for the opening of a child’s event and arcade center.
“I did not know the owners of this business before they contacted me,” she told The Lens. “I trust you will find the email chain illustrates the confusion of our small business community and their desperation in seeking assistance from local leaders to gain clarification of the rules. … In neither case was any special treatment or intervention requested, only guidance.”
However, while she may have been seeking guidance for all Jefferson Parish businesses, her emails to Browning show that Balcony Ballroom was a clear priority. And they show that she wasn’t just seeking guidance, she was arguing for a specific interpretation — that wedding receptions were allowed in phase one and that Balcony Ballroom should be allowed to operate under rules laid out for restaurants.
“I am unaware of any ethical consideration that prohibits a Councilmember from seeking guidance from the state fire marshal on behalf of the business community, including a business established by family,” Van Vrancken said in an email.
Collins said that it was unlikely that the situation would engender a response from the State Ethics Board.
“I can tell you I learned enough about the commission to know that the commissioners don’t like to take cases unless there is a tremendous amount of compelling evidence of a violation,” he said. “It basically has to be an open and shut case. I don’t really see enough here for them to take this case from a legal standpoint.”
But, he said, outside of courtrooms and formal ethics procedures, Van Vrancken’s actions clearly represent a breach in ethics to an objective observer.
“I mean it’s pretty clear to me that she’s violating, if not the letter of the law, the spirit of the law,” he said.
He also said that regardless of her financial stake in the business and the potential conflict of interest, Van Vrancken was acting irresponsibly by working to reopen a business that was having large indoor gatherings where customers weren’t wearing masks.
“This is clearly a dangerous situation. I really don’t know how she can feel comfortable having this going on. As close together as these people are, basically if one person is infected you could have a super spreader event right there.”