New Orleans bars and restaurants will be forced to close earlier and limit the number of customers who can come in at one time, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced Sunday evening.

Under the order, restaurants will have to stop seating customers at 9 p.m. and limit their seating capacity, with a goal of getting down to 50 percent of their posted capacity.

Last call at bars will be 11:15 p.m., and all customers must be out by midnight. They may still offer delivery until their usual closing times. Bars will be limited to 50 percent capacity.

And people will not be allowed to congregate outside eating or drinking establishments once they have exited.

Fast-food restaurants will be allowed to remain open 24 hours per day but will be limited to drive-through services.

In addition, the order limits tour groups to seven people.

Though the provisions of the announcement are marked as “guidelines,” Cantrell’s announcement says, “These guidelines are expected to be implemented immediately, and will be enforced.”

Hours before the announcement, Cantrell said at a press conference that there are no current plans for forced business closures. But, she added, the city would announce measures to limit the number of people patronizing businesses, to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. She said other measures, including possible curfews, are being discussed.

Throughout Sunday’s press conference, Cantrell and other officials repeatedly urged residents to limit their social contacts voluntarily. Meanwhile, pursuant to a Friday order from Gov. John Bel Edwards, the New Orleans Police Department is working to shut down large gatherings throughout the city.

“If we’re not getting the responses we’re looking for, we will ramp up enforcement and more aggressive measures,” Cantrell said.

She noted that an emergency declaration she issued last week gives her powers to bypass normal business permitting procedures. The declaration also provides the power to limit or suspend the sale of alcohol.

“This is in fact a crisis. Make no mistake about that,” Cantrell said. “The positive cases that we are seeing in the city of New Orleans are increasing and we do anticipate them increasing every single day.”

The state reported its first case on Monday, and new positive tests have increased substantially, most of them involving New Orleans residents. 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. Over the weekend, the state saw its first two deaths from the disease. Both were New Orleans residents who were being treated at Touro Infirmary. According to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office, both patients were in their 50s and had underlying health conditions, which have not been specified.

On Friday, Edwards took the most dramatic step to date to try to slow the spread of the disease: announcing that public schools will close statewide beginning on Monday, through April 13. Edwards also announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. But people continued to gather informally in large numbers, including on Bourbon Street and at Uptown St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, during the weekend. In a statement on Saturday, Cantrell urged residents and visitors to stop such activities. And the New Orleans Police Department sent officers to several locations to disperse crowds. 

“I was deeply disappointed this afternoon by the individuals who chose to ignore the sober warnings of our public health officials and the proclamation issued by the Governor,” Cantrell said in the statement. 

Other U.S. cities have taken more extreme measures to enforce “social distancing” and limit the spread of the virus. Last week, the state of New York declared a “containment zone” in New Rochelle, and the National Guard was called into the New York City suburb to assist with food service, cleaning and other tasks. On Saturday, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, called a citywide curfew, and shuttered bars and restaurants. In Europe, which has seen cases and deaths rise dramatically, Italy and Spain have imposed nationwide lockdowns. China, where the novel coronavirus first appeared late last year, has seen mass lockdowns for several months. 

Testing pilot to start this week

The city has been selected — along with Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle — to participate in a federal pilot program to increase coronavirus testing, including possibly opening drive-through testing facilities, officials said. The testing ramp-up could start as early as mid-week. It would initially focus on people at the greatest risk for contracting or being severely affected by the virus, beginning with first responders.

Cantrell said that details are still being worked out, but the city would provide them when they are available.

City Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno said that hospitals are doing OK now, and she believed that they have enough space for a surge in infections. But, she said, there is a possibility that supplies and medical staff could become strained.

“As the rate of infections increases, healthcare facilities can become overwhelmed quickly,” she said. She said the city is working with the state to build its capacity.

“We will need that,” Cantrell said. She said the city is working with “one of our business leaders” to add on capacity “should we need to quarantine individuals who may not need to be in a hospital bed.”

Library closed to public

Earlier Cantrell announced city libraries would close as well, but employees would still report to work. But she said she may “activate” libraries with “shifted services” in the future. She did not elaborate on what that might look like.

“Just know that they are ready should they be needed for other uses,” she said.

City Hall will remain open but employees and visitors will have their temperature checked when they enter the building. Some city employees may be able to work from home, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño announced.

Utility collections suspended, meals being provided to students

Utility providers, including Entergy New Orleans, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and Cox Cable, have announced temporary suspension of all service disconnections for failure to pay. The First and Second City Courts have suspended residential evictions.

The NOLA Public Schools district’s charter schools are working together to provide meals to students during the month-long school closure. According to a press release, issued Sunday, at least seven sites will be distributing food Monday. By Wednesday, at least 22 sites will be open, it stated. All public school students are eligible to receive meals from any of the open schools sites. Students do not need to be present to get the meal, parents or caregivers from the household can pick them up.* Meals should be available citywide next week.

Beginning Monday all “non-essential” district staff will work from home. That means the Mahalia Jackson Community Center and all Family Resource Centers will also be closed through April.

Courts closed

New Orleans Municipal and Traffic Court will “effectively, immediately close,” though they will still hear first appearances, said City Criminal Justice Commissioner Tenisha Stevens. Juvenile Court will remain open.

Stevens did not say if Criminal District Court, which has already suspended juries for the month, will close as well.

“Criminal District Court is working on their plan this evening,” she said. Stevens suggested that the plan could include some releases of Orleans Justice Center inmates who are awaiting trials or hearings. Those decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judicial Administrator Robert Kazik told The Lens on Sunday that he did not yet have details available.

Marta Jewson and Nick Chrastil contributed to this story.

*This story was updated with a correction issued by NOLA Public Schools. Parents and caregivers from the same household as a student may pick up meals for them.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...