Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaking at a March 15, 2020 press conference regarding the coronavirus crisis. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced new restrictions and changes to City Hall’s operations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic at a Sunday press conference in front of City Hall. 

Visitor access to City Hall will be restricted to 25 people per floor and visitors will be screened for fevers before being allowed to enter. Some city employees will begin to work from home, while others could be potentially repurposed for other needs such as cleaning public facilities. The city is freezing all “non-essential spending” and closing down public access to libraries and facilities maintained by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. 

The announcements came on top of existing city service restrictions, including the closure of all public schools.

As of Sunday afternoon, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 103 presumptive positive cases of coronavirus in the state, of which 75 were in New Orleans. 284 tests had been performed in the state by Sunday. At the press conference, the director of the city’s Health Department, Jennifer Avegno, warned that the situation in New Orleans is “very concerning.”

“Based on our available data, it seems that the rate of infection is increasing faster than in other cities in the US,” she said.

There was a common thread throughout the entire press conference: things are changing fast and residents should be prepared for updated policies. 

“This is a fluid situation, things change,” Cantrell said. “And we’re prepared to make changes should they become necessary.”

Cantrell announced that City Hall will now restrict visitation to 25 visitors per floor. Visitors will only be able to access the building through the main entrance at 1300 Perdido Street and will need to undergo a body temperature screening before being allowed in. If a visitor is measured at 100 degrees fahrenheit or above, they won’t be allowed in.

City Hall employees will also have to go through temperature screening when they arrive for work. Some city employees, however, won’t have to report to City Hall and will be able to work from out of the office. It’s currently unclear who that will apply to. 

“Not everyone will qualify, and we are working through the logistics,” Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said. 

Other employees could be reassigned to tasks outside their original job descriptions as well, Cantrell said. She suggested that more employees could be assigned to help deep clean public facilities.

“Some employees that will be redeployed in providing or doing different duties, like joining the operation deep clean team,” she said. “We want to utilize effectively all of our public assets, that also means our people, city employees.”

Montaño also announced that the city is freezing its operational budget and halting non-essential spending.

“I want to make sure we’re protecting our budget and maintaining significant coffers for the unexpected,” he said. “It will affect some of the day to day operations but not the core basic services as it relates to addressing the COVID-19 issue.”

While the city’s libraries will be closed to the public, library employees will still be reporting for work. 

“I’ve made the decision to close the libraries to the general public,” Cantrell said. “However, our employees will be working because I want to make sure that our libraries are ready should we need to activate them, and even as it relates to how we will activate them, meaning the services they will be provided, which may have to shift based on the needs of our community.”

Asked what the facilities were being prepared for, Cantrell declined to share more details, although she suggested that the libraries could be used to increase internet availability.

“We’re in a fluid situation,” she said. “So giving you specifics on the use I will not do at this time. But just know, they will be ready if we need any use of our public facilities. Making sure they’re clean and accessible.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...