Construction on Convention Center Boulevard began in September 2018. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is seriously considering utilizing the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center to house non-critical coronavirus patients as the area’s hospitals are expected to be overwhelmed by the global pandemic. That news was revealed on Wednesday morning during a remote meeting of the Convention Center board’s finance committee. 

Board chairman Melvin Rodrigue said a state decision could come down as early as Wednesday if state negotiations with local hotels stall. 

Edwards, health officials and national experts have all predicted that with New Orleans’ high rate of infection, the area’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by early next month. One solution that Edwards’ administration is working on is taking coronavirus patients who no longer need intensive care to other locations where they can still be safely monitored and isolated. 

The state has already begun using state parks, including Bayou Segnette State Park, to house those types of patients as well as unsheltered homeless people.

At a Tuesday press conference, Edwards said that the state was in discussion with hotels and college dorm rooms to house those people. But according to Convention Center board chairman Melvin Rodrigue, those talks aren’t going so well.

“At the end of the day it really boils down to this: They’ve been in conversations with hotels. They’ve made some progress. They’re not pleased with the progress that they’ve made,” he said. “If the curve doesn’t flatten because of the measures they have taken, they will be short 1000 hotel beds on April 6.”

Convention Center President Michael Sawaya said he heard the state was looking for 2,000 beds. 

“And I’ve also heard 3,000 is what we’re ramping up to,” Rodrigue said.

He said that the immediate focus was on the projected 1000 bed shortage, and that they would have to see what the needs were after that. 

“Whether it’s 2000 or 3000, we don’t have the answer to that yet,” he said.

Things appear to be moving quickly. Rodrigue said the state had reached out on Tuesday evening, asking the Convention Center to accommodate state officials touring the building. He said the state could make a decision by the end of the day on Wednesday.

“If they don’t have a deal with a hotel by the end of the day today, they’re going to feel like they’re behind the eightball and they’re going to want to utilize the convention center.”

For the Convention Center board, the idea brought back some bad memories from after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levee system, when the building was used as a shelter of last resort

“We all see the convention center as the last resort,” Rodruge said. “We know what it meant to try to come back from tragic images and what it meant for the brand of tourism in New Orleans after Katrina.”

In 2005, thousands of evacuees were forced to take shelter in the Convention Center after the Superdome found itself overwhelmed with people seeking shelter.* At the time, the conditions at the Convention Center were squalid, lacking adequate food, water, electricity and medical care.

“I don’t think it would be as bad as Katrina and I do think we do need to do our part,” Rodrigue said. “But let me be clear, we won’t have a choice in the matter.”

Board member Ryan Berni said that during Hurricane Isaac in 2012, the Convention Center was utilized for relief efforts, but that only a small section of the center was used. He asked if something similar could be done for the current state needs. Sawaya said that might not be possible.

“They are looking at a plan to use all the exhibit space at the center,” Sawaya said. “Again, this is a planning phase in case this ramps up, but be aware they have a plan that looks at the entire building as this might escalate.”

Board member Stephen Caputo asked it might be better for the Convention Center to put up some sort of incentive for hotels to take on the burden instead. 

“This is our community and I think we’re all feeling it and want to help as much as we can,” Caputo said. “And I think we’re trying to temper that with our obligation to the center for its long term financial success, recognizing that if they show images of the Convention Center being turned into a hospital, it would hurt our brand.”

Rodrigue said he would look into that possibility. A spokesperson for Governor Edwards didn’t respond to a request for comment.  

*As originally published, this story said ‘In 2005, thousands of evacuees were directed to take shelter in the Convention Center after the Superdome found itself overwhelmed with people seeking shelter.’

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...