New Orleans is prepared to begin the first phase of reopening its economy, beginning as soon as the end of the week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced on Monday.
Cantrell’s announcement came just hours before a press conference from Governor John Bel Edwards, at which he announced that the state-wide stay at home order would end on Friday and the state would enter phase one of reopening the economy. Cantrell said the state’s plan will impact the city’s plan, but that the city may choose to take additional protective steps that the state does not.
Edwards’ plan for the state will allow certain businesses that have been forced to close — like gyms, hair salons and certain museums — to reopen at 25 percent capacity.
Other “non-essential” businesses, like certain retail stores, that have been limited to ten people will instead be allowed 25 percent capacity when the statewide stay-at-home order lifts on Friday. Restaurants, which at first were limited to takeout and delivery only and later allowed to offer outdoor seating, will be allowed to offer dine-in service at 25 percent capacity. Certain “high-risk” businesses, including bars without a food service license, will remain closed, under Edwards’ new order.
“We as a city have the right to chart our own course that’s aligned with the data,” Cantrell said. “The city’s guidelines for phase one in some ways will be more restrictive than statewide.”
But most New Orleans residents shouldn’t expect a radical change from what they’re currently doing. There will be some lifted restrictions for “low-risk” businesses, but many of the current business closures for high-risk businesses like event venues and bars will remain in place, as well as current social distancing measures.
Cantrell also appeared to back off a controversial plan to require businesses to keep logs of customers to help trace infections from person to person. On Monday, city Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno said that they would look to the state for guidance on whether logs would be recommended or mandated. Edwards said last week that he doesn’t plan to mandate customer logs.
The new phase could also see mandatory quarantine for people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. But whether that is required by the city or simply recommended is still up in the air. That, Avegno said, could also depend on what Edwards decides at the state level.
“There certainly are communicable diseases, like tuberculosis, in which quarantine can be mandated,” Avegno said on Monday. “I’m not sure yet if Covid is going to be one.”
The main change that Phase I will bring is for businesses deemed “low-risk” and “medium-risk with modifications.” Those businesses will be able to reopen at 25 percent normal capacity. However, exactly what businesses fall under those categories is still unclear.
Cantrell said that she would “unveil comprehensive guidelines” on Tuesday.
What we do know is that Phase I will include many of the social distancing measures that New Orleans residents have had to get used to over the last couple months. Many of the same business restrictions on bars, venues and conventions will remain in place.
“What we’re calling Phase I is ‘safest at home,’ which means for many of us that’s the best place to be,” Avegno said. “What we’re saying is physical distancing will stay in effect for the foreseeable future. Everyone must wear face coverings when they go about their business.”
She said that elderly people and people at high risk of catching and facing serious complications from the virus should remain isolated. Sections of the economy with “super-spreader potential” — such as conventions, sports arenas, houses of worship, gyms and bars — will remain closed. And, Avegno said, the city is still holding on to the possibility that the reopening causes another spike in infections that forces a return to current restrictions.
When asked what businesses will be regarded as “low-risk” or “medium-risk with modifications,” Avegno pointed to guidelines set out by Johns Hopkins University and the Resilient Louisiana Commission — a body set up by the state to help coordinate the reopening of the state’s economy.
Phase I will also see ramped up contact tracing — a way for medical investigators to track people who have been in close contact with people who have tested positive for the virus. The Louisiana Department of Health currently has 70 contact tracers working in the state, according to Monday’s presentation, but that will increase to more than 700 by June.
Cantrell had first suggested that businesses will have to keep customer logs as a way to bolster the efficiency of contact tracers. Businesses have pushed back, citing privacy concerns, but it’s still unclear whether customer logs will be mandated by the city, or just encouraged.
A similar question remains for what will happen to people who contact tracers believe are at risk.
“We’re going back to a situation where anyone in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID will be quarantined for 14 days,” Avegno said while talking about ramped up contact tracing. “That will be a state recommendation. So whether it will be a mandate, I’m not quite sure. It will be the strongest recommendation and I’ll await guidance on what their legal team says.”
She said that quarantine will be recommended or required for people in close contact — within six feet of each other and without masks — with an infected person for more than 10 minutes.
The purpose of Monday’s press conference was largely to display positive trends in the data that allows the city to start reopening.
“This is evidence that because of the stay at home mandate, all the sacrifices you made, we’ve been able to flatten the curve,” Avegno said.
Avegno presented four milestones that allow the city to proceed with a slow, incremental reopening. The first is the number of new cases reported in Orleans Parish day by day. According to data presented on Monday, the city saw a big spike in early April with 450 new cases a day. But since then, there’s been a precipitous drop, and the city has seen less than 50 new cases a day for the last two weeks.
The second big milestone was the number of tests available. Avegno said the goal is to have the testing capacity to test 40 percent of citizens once a month, or about 500 tests a day for New Orleans. According to data presented on Monday, the city has exceeded that goal since early April.
The third milestone is contact tracing. The city didn’t cite a specific goal for this milestone, but noted that the Louisiana Department of Health would have 270 contact working in the state by the end of the week, and more than 700 by the end of the month.
The last milestone was hospital capacity. In April, the city opened a 2,000 person medical monitoring facility at the Ernest. N Morial Convention Center over concerns that the rush of coronavirus cases would overwhelm the capacity of hospitals, intensive care units and ventilators. Since then, however, the region’s hospital’s have had a comfortable capacity and there haven’t been immediate threats of getting overwhelmed.
But Avegno cautioned that all of these indicators could change once the city reopens if they ease restrictions too quickly or if people stop following social distancing rules.
“If we go into Phase I cautiously and safely, we won’t have to go back to where we are and can continue to Phase II,” she said.