The city of New Orleans will move from phase two to phase three of its COVID-19 economic reopening plan on Saturday at 6 a.m., Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced at a Thursday press conference. But the city will be moving more slowly than the rest of the state, which has been in phase three for weeks.

Cantrell said the decision came after weeks of positive health data, including sustained low daily case counts and low rates of testing positivity for city residents. 

“We have flattened the curve in the city of New Orleans and slowed down the spread of this virus significantly,” Cantrell said. “And we’ve done it twice.”

“In the past week, we’ve seen no COVID related deaths in our community, which is a big demonstration of progress,” she said.

New Orleans’ version of Phase 3 will have three parts — phase 3.1, phase 3.2 and phase 3.3. 

Beginning Saturday, restaurants will be able to host indoor dining at 75 percent capacity — up from 50 percent in phase two — and outdoor dining at 100 percent capacity. Other businesses that will be able to function at 75 percent capacity include retail stores, salons and barber shops, museums, zoos and aquariums, office buildings, shopping malls, and tattoo and massage parlors

Places of worship will have to remain at 50 percent capacity. Private and public gatherings will be limited to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. 

Bars that don’t have food permits, which have been shut down entirely since late July, will be able to reopen to serve to-go drinks only. To-go drinks were recently permitted for restaurants and bars with food permits, restricted to the hours of 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. That time limit will remain in effect for restaurants and bars.

Phase 3.1 will see one new restriction: Stores in the French Quarter and Central Business District will only be able to sell packaged liquor from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. City Health Director Jennifer Avegno said that a major issue has been “uncontrolled crowds” buying drinks from liquor stores after restaurants closed for the night, then congregating on the street. 

“You’ve all seen the pictures,” Avegno said. 

Cantrell and Avegno stressed that the newly loosened rules on capacity are contingent on businesses being able to maintain proper social distancing. 

“With all of this, we are all still wearing face coverings… and staying 6 feet apart,” Cantrell said.

Phase three will also come with ramped up enforcement on businesses flouting rules, Cantrell and other city officials said Thursday. 

Peter Bowen, the so-called “founding entrepreneur” of the city’s new Office of Business and External Services, also spoke on Thursday about enforcement efforts.

“Most businesses and residents have been excellent partners,” Bowen said. “Bad actors have and will continue to be temporarily shut down.”

Cantrell said that six businesses have been shut down so far for violating coronavirus restrictions. The city recently shut down two bars on Claiborne Avenue, including Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge. 

“To support compliance, we’ve worked with the bad actors to create plans to reopen,” Bowen said. “We don’t want to close any businesses, but the safety of our people is always the goal.”

Governor John Bel Edwards moved Louisiana into Phase 3 on Sept. 11, which expanded capacity limits at many businesses from 50 percent to 75 percent. New Orleans didn’t follow the state, however, and remained in Phase 2.

At the time, Cantrell and other city officials said it wanted to remain in the more restrictive phase in order to gather accurate data and see the effects of the resumption of in-person learning at some city schools. Those opened to the city’s youngest students earlier this month. 

“We have not seen any negatives to sending our pre-k through 4th grade students back to the classroom,” Cantrell said. She said that older students are scheduled to begin on Oct. 12. 

According to the most recent data from the Louisiana Department of Health, the positivity rate of coronavirus tests in Orleans Parish has dropped to 1.6 percent. The positivity rate has been used as a key indicator by the state. Under the state’s Phase 3 rules, parishes with a positivity rate less than 5 percent are eligible to reopen bars for on-premises consumption.

Phases 3.2 and 3.3

Phase 3.2 could begin as early as October 16, and the city could move on to phase 3.3 as early as October 31, Avegno said. 

The guiding principles for the city’s path through Phase 3 will include an emphasis on encouraging outdoor activities and “timed, seated events,” she said. 

Phase 3.2 would allow bars to host customers at outdoor seating, as opposed to phase 3.1, where bars can only serve to-go drinks. Phase 3.3 would allow bars to start serving customers inside as well.

Capacity limits will continue to climb through phase 3.2 and 3.3 for “timed and seated events” as well as social gatherings and sporting events. It appears that businesses will remain at 75 percent capacity throughout all of phase 3. 

Cantrell said that once the city gets to phase 3.3, “it would be pretty much aligned with the state at that point.” 

Also on Thursday, the city announced three programs to help struggling businesses, mostly aimed at restaurants and bars.

“It goes without saying that our restaurants and bars are the backbone of New Orleans’ community and culture,” said Jeffrey Schwartz, the city’s director of economic development. “National trends suggest that more than half of all restaurants and bars are at risk of closing.”

The first initiative is an expansion of an existing grant program the city has operated to help restaurants bolster their outdoor seating areas. Schwartz said that the city will open a new round of grant applications starting on Friday specifically aimed at bars — which will be allowed to host customers in outdoor seating areas in phase 3.2 — for grants up to $2,000.

The city is also launching a pilot program that will allow businesses to expand outdoor spaces on street parking areas. Schartz said this will help restaurants and bars and “and hopefully other businesses.” The two week pilot program will be in the Downtown Development District, which is bounded by Iberville Street, the Pontchartrain Expressway, Claiborne Avenue and the Mississippi River. 

The city will be giving out grants up to $6,000 to help businesses set up these new outdoor spaces in areas that were once used as parking spaces. 

“We could not be more excited,” Schwartz said. “This is something that isn’t just a COVID response, it’s also something that will be a permanent change in New Orleans’ landscape.”

Schwartz said the businesses can apply to function one of these “parklets” with the city in the same manner they would apply for any other business permit through the OneStopShop or by emailing outdoordining@nola.gov.

Last, the city is implementing one part of it’s larger French Quarter Pedestrianization Plan. It will be closing off French Market Place to motorized vehicles from 8 a.m. Thursday to 8 a.m. Monday every week. French Market Place is a two block street that runs alongside the French Market.  

“As we balance supporting public health and our businesses, we know that these are two sides of the same coin,” Schwartz said. “They are not opposed to one another. To get businesses back open and the city back to work, we also know we need to know they’re safe to employees and patrons.”

Cantrell and Avegno said that the decision to move on to phases 3.2 and 3.3 will rely on a number of different factors and trends, including positivity rates, number of positive cases, and hospitalizations. But Avegno said that along with these broad indicators, the city is also looking to be “surgical” with its analysis.

As an example, she said that in the beginning of September, the city saw an uptick in new positive cases, but that officials were able to pinpoint the source to students returning to college campuses, rather than a general trend throughout the city. 

“Our goal is always to be surgical,” Avegno said. “And if we can identify particular problems and intervene there rather than sort of a blanket ‘we’re gonna go back.’ It might be, though, that we will pause if a number of trends go up.”

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...