NEW ORLEANS – It's a fresh taste of bitter medicine for New Orleans: A sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is forcing bars in the good-time-loving, tourist-dependent city to shut down again just a month after they were allowed to partially reopen.
Louisiana had been an international hot spot for the new coronavirus in March, and New Orleans was its focal point. But hospitalizations began dropping after an April peak and it appeared that the closure of a wide array of businesses, including dine-in restaurants, gyms, tattoo parlors and bars, had flattened the curve.
A gradual easing of restrictions began in May, culminating with Mayor LaToya Cantrell's decision to let New Orleans bars reopen, albeit at only 25% capacity, on June 13.
Last call came a lot sooner than anyone wanted.
On Saturday, in a move supported by Cantrell, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued new restrictions. Edwards' order doesn't close bars completely. But it restricts them to takeout service or delivery. Bar operators contacted Monday were treating it as a shutdown order, however.
Mark Schettler, bartender and general manager of Bar Tonique, a “craft cocktail dive” on Rampart Street at the edge of the French Quarter, said the new restrictions, coupled with state law, appear to limit his sales to packaged liquor and beer and frozen daiquiris. “A bar like mine, that doesn't help us,” he said. “Who the hell's going to come buy a six-pack of beer from Tonique?”
It would make little sense to offer only takeout and delivery from Bruno’s Tavern, a neighborhood bar and grill in New Orleans’ Carrollton area that has been operating since the 1930s, said general manager Will Wilson.
“We could stay open but we’d be bleeding money,” Wilson said.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a bar in an 18th century building on Bourbon Street, also is closing.
“Anytime they changed a compliance rule, we were right there changing with it,” said Cherie Boos, the bar's manager. “This one, it’s a blow.”
State officials said they saw no other way.
“Since the start of the crisis, Louisiana has identified at least 36 outbreaks, affecting at least 405 people, involving bars," Edwards’ office said in a Saturday news release. “Public health officials believe going to bars is a higher public health risk than visiting other types of businesses because people are socializing and cannot wear masks when they drink.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations in the New Orleans region had fallen from more than 1,000 in April to fewer than 70 by June 20, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, director of the state health department region that includes the metropolitan area. Statewide, hospitalizations that peaked around 2,000 in early April had fallen well below 600 by early June.
When restrictions on business were eased, it wasn't just the number of cases that increased — something to be expected as the state ramped up testing. The percentage of positive tests statewide went from around 7% in early June to as high as 18% at one point last week. During that same time period, the positivity rate in New Orleans rose from under 5% to more than 10%.
Hospitalizations in New Orleans were back up to 120 last week and rising. Statewide hospitalizations were at 1,300 and trending sharply upward, according to figures the state health department released Monday.
“We have lost all the gains made in June and are seeing some numbers that rival our peak back in April,” Edwards said at a recent news conference.
No sector of the state's economy has been untouched by the coronavirus-related restrictions, but it's been keenly felt in New Orleans. The city's tourism and hospitality industry employed 94,000 people — until April, when nearly half those jobs went away, according to figures posted by the independent Data Center of New Orleans on its website.
Schettler likens the economic devastation to the woes the city suffered after levee breaches led to devastating floods during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In some ways, he said, dealing with the virus makes recovery more complex.
After the storm, he said, the water eventually receded and a recovery plan could begin.
“The flood waters don't recede with COVID,” he remarked.
The new restrictions also dash any hope of live music venues returning soon. The Maple Leaf Bar is padlocked, and the doors at Tipitina's are closed.
Singer John Boutte’s usual gig at the DBA bar is gone for now — as are the performances he had planned in Denmark, Switzerland and Scotland. And indoor gatherings are now limited to 25 people in New Orleans under restrictions adopted last week, squelching any hope for paid private events.
“French Quarter Fest. Jazz Fest. The private parties. That fell apart,” said Boutte, listing events big and small that have been lost to the virus.
And there's no telling when the gigs will return.
“Historically, pandemics last three years, four years,” Boutte mused. “And then people just get back and forget about it for another hundred years.”