Mayor Latoya Cantrell, city homeland security director Collin Arnold and City Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno at a May 12, 2020 press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans will enter the first phase of reopening the economy on Saturday, two months after Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, Cantrell provided details on the city’s plan, illustrating what the initial phase will look like.

Under the city’s “Phase One: Safest at Home” plan, many of the restrictions that New Orleans residents have had to accept over the last couple months will remain in place. Public gatherings will still be limited to less than 10 people, masks will still be strongly encouraged in public and social distancing guidelines will remain in place.

“Under phase one, we’re calling it ‘safest at home,’ because you’re still safest at home,” Cantrell said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “This is not a call for you to move about the city.”

Some restrictions will be lifted though. Certain businesses, such as restaurants, gyms and houses of worship will be able to open with new restrictions, including limiting occupancy to 25 percent of their usual limit. 

The city’s plan will largely mirror a plan laid out by Governor John Bel Edwards on Monday. The city did install some extra restrictions that aren’t included in the state’s plan.

Under both the city and state plans, businesses and other facilities that can open at limited capacity in phase one include barbershops and beauty salons, churches, gyms, libraries, movie theaters, museums, restaurants and other food establishments. Previously, some of those businesses were closed altogether, while some were allowed to operate with less than 10 people at a time. 

Certain businesses that require physical touching will remain closed, including massage parlors, spas and tattoo parlors. Hairdressers, on the other hand, will be allowed to reopen under a new 25 percent capacity limit. 

Restaurants will be able to start hosting indoor guests again at 25 percent capacity. Bars with food permits will be in the same boat as restaurants. Bars without food permits will remain closed. 

The city has put some additional restrictions on top of those coming from the state. Unlike the state, New Orleans won’t allow casinos or live theater performances. Gyms will be able to open like in the rest of Louisiana, but New Orleans is keeping a moratorium on group classes, contact sports and closed-in spaces like locker rooms and saunas. 

In the state plan, houses of worship can resume indoor services at 25 percent capacity. New Orleans will limit services to either 25 percent capacity or 100 people total, whichever is smaller. That accounts for some of the city’s larger churches, Cantrell explained. 

Contact Tracing 

Phase one of the city and state reopening plans will also see ramped up “contact tracing,” a common tool used to combat contagious diseases. The goal of contact tracing is to track down and notify anyone who has been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. In this case, the state will define “close contact” as being within six feet of an infected person for more than ten to fifteen minutes, according to Edwards and Sarah Babcock of the city’s Health Department.

People who are determined to have been in close contact with an infected person will be told to quarantine for 14 days. Babcock said that other factors, such as whether the person was wearing a mask, will help determine whether the Louisiana Department of Health recommends 14 days of quarantine or not. 

City Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said that there will not be an enforceable quarantine mandate for those who haven’t tested positive but were in contact with someone who did. She said that residents should listen to the guidance nonetheless. In an interview following Cantrell’s press conference, Avegno added that there are already ways to force quarantine for people who have tested positive, but that the city hasn’t had to use that power on any coronavirus patient so far.

The contact tracing effort will be led by the Louisiana Department of Health, which currently has 70 contact tracers on staff, according to a city presentation on Monday. That number will rise to more than 200 by the end of the week and up to 700 by June, Cantrell said on Monday.

The city, unlike the state, will require restaurants, beauty salons and gyms to use reservation systems to keep track of the names and phone numbers of customers in case contact tracers need the information. Restaurants will only have to do that for customers who dine in. The businesses will not be required to hand over that information in bulk, Cantrell said on Tuesday, but the information could be helpful to state contact tracers.

Avegno pointed out that most of these businesses will already have some sort of reservation system for clients, and that restaurants should be working on a reservation system anyway to ensure there aren’t too many people congregating outside waiting for a table. 

“It’s not an onerous requirement,” she told The Lens. 

In response to questions about privacy concerns, Babcock said that all data taken by the Louisiana Department of Health is shielded from public disclosure by federal privacy laws.

Following the data

Cantrell and top city officials went on radio station WBOK on Tuesday afternoon to answer residents’ questions about the reopening. Cantrell has repeatedly said that the city’s reopening would be pegged to data trends. She praised the city for its quick response to the virus, saying that all the sacrifices have made a real difference.

“The rate of new infections is showing a steady downward trend right now over 21 days. And again that’s a thank you to you all for following the mandate the city put in place.”

On Monday, the city presented data to illustrate how far the city had come in the fight against coronavirus. The city cited a number of metrics, including number of new cases, number of tests available and hospital capacity. 

But on Tuesday, Cantrell warned that closures could be reinstated if the data starts to turn in the wrong direction. She likened the process to slowly opening the faucet on a sink. 

“If we see any regression we’re going to turn that faucet off completely,” she said on WBOK.

But if the trends continue in the right direction, the city will be able to move on to the next three phases of the reopening. From “Phase One: Safest at Home,” the city hopes to move on to “Phase Two: Safer at Home,” “Phase Three: Safe for Most” and “Phase Four: Safe in a Herd.”

Details are still scant on the second and third phases. Phase four “will largely resemble pre-COVID-19 life, although some restrictions may remain necessary,” according to the city’s NOLA Ready website. But Cantrell again warned that phase four was still a long way off.

“We know that we’re going to be living with this virus, quite frankly until a vaccine is created. And that’s still 9 to 12 months out. And that can go even further.”

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...