As restaurants and businesses prepare to gradually reopen this weekend, civic clubs and professional organizations are trying to figure out what their new normal will look like.
After all, having lunch at the City Club or at the weekly meeting of the Baton Rouge Rotary is about more than having a meal. It’s a way to network, make new contacts and reaffirm old ones.
But with social distancing measures and safety protocols limiting the number of people that can congregate and spelling out how far apart they must remain, the whole dynamic for clubs and organizations will change—and with it, perhaps, the way a lot of people in Baton Rouge are used to doing business.
“Baton Rouge is a close-knit community and a lot of business gets done face-to-face,” says realtor Barbara Anne Eaton, a member of the City Club and the Rotary Club. “I’ve got to be out and about because that’s how people remember what I do. But what is that going to look like when we’re all wearing a mask and we can’t sit close to one another at the table?”
Eaton will be able to find out beginning Monday when the members-only City Club downtown reopens for in-person dining on a limited basis. The second-floor dining room only will be open for lunch, with tables seating two, four or six diners appropriately spaced.
Club marketing and membership director Mary Milton says the club will operate that way for three weeks, while the state is in phase one of the staged reopening, and will make decisions about accommodating larger groups and reopening other parts of the club when more guidance from the state becomes available.
“We really don’t know what it’s going to look like just yet,” Milton says. “But we do know from our constant contact with our members they’re very excited to get back to normalcy.”
The Baton Rouge Rotary Club, which typically draws between 200 to 250 members to its Wednesday lunch meetings at Drusilla Seafood, has canceled all meetings through June, though it has held a couple of virtual meetings with guest speakers.
Rotary Club Executive Director Sherry McBeath says the club board is still trying to figure out what it will do come July. Even if restaurants are allowed to serve larger crowds by then, she questions whether members, whose average age is 58, will feel comfortable congregating in such close confines.
“We’re all just figuring it out as we go,” she says. “We’re talking about a lot of ideas. One, for instance, is that we could limit attendance to 50 people on a sign-up basis and rotate throughout the month so different members could have a turn to come.”
The club is also considering undertaking service projects that would engage members and enable them to be involved and interact with one another but in smaller groups. But it’s still too soon to say which route the club may choose.
“It’s fluid and evolving,” she says.
For smaller professional organizations, like the Public Relations Association of Louisiana, Zoom has proved to be an effective way to continue meeting monthly, though it’s still not the same as gathering in person, says Caroline Isemann, president of the PRAL Baton Rouge chapter.
“One of the primary benefits of being part of PRAL is the face-to-face networking that can’t be replaced with Zoom,” she says. “Getting to know your peers and developing those relationships that will help you as you grow your career are invaluable. However, it’s been great to have virtual options to continue connecting with our members these last few months. It’s gone better than I expected.”
PRAL will integrate more virtual gatherings into its programming in the months to come, Isemann says, and hopes to resume in-person meetings in late summer.