As COVID-19 cases surge across the country and in Louisiana, city of New Orleans officials announced this afternoon that the city would not be implementing new restrictions on bars and restaurants, as has happened in most parishes across the state.

“We will not see any restrictions put in place for Orleans Parish, because the data dictates otherwise,” Mayor Latoya Cantrell said.

“We were here last week, and we presented many of our data points that were pretty concerning, and in many ways still are,” said City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno. “We asked our residents to prevent further spread of COVID-19. From what we’re seeing, many took that to heart.”

The decision appears to largely hinge on the percent of COVID tests coming back positive in the state. Last Wednesday, New Orleans’ test positivity rate was 5.2 percent. But in data released by the Louisiana Department of Health today, the positivity rate had dropped to 4.7 percent.

(The city reports a slightly lower real-time positivity number on its own dashboard, but says that the state data is cleaner.)

Under state guidelines, that five percent positivity mark is critical for bars and restaurants. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Phase 3 order dictated that bars could only open for in-person service if a parish’s percent positivity remained below five percent.

Cantrell said that she’d learned of the slightly improved numbers earlier in the week, and had already informed the city’s hospitality sector.

But both Cantrell and Avegno stressed that the city was still on the edge of restrictions. 

“Our numbers are still higher than we’d like them to be,” Avegno said, while noting that given the national surge in cases, “sometimes staying in place can be a win as well.”

New Orleans’ COVID metrics have been in or around critical levels since the beginning of the month. The city has seen more than 100 new cases every day since December 1, and hospital bed occupancy has hovered around 70 percent over that same period.

The city’s estimated infection rate — the number of new people each sick person will infect — has declined steadily since a mid-November high, but still remains near critical levels. Right now, the infection rate is .92. When it’s greater than 1, new cases can grow exponentially, and quickly spiral out of control. And currently, fewer than half of all new cases are reached by contact tracers within 24 hours, making it harder to get people into quarantine.

But so far, New Orleans’ COVID numbers have been less dire than those of the state as a whole. Statewide hospitalizations are approaching the summer peak of about 1,600, and percent positivity was above five percent in all but four parishes this week. The overall state positivity rate was 9.3 percent.

Most bars across the state were forced to close in late November as cases surged and the state returned to “modified” Phase 2 restrictions.

Cantrell attributed the improved numbers to a sense of “personal responsibility” among New Orleanians based after numerous warnings in the past few weeks. Avegno also noted that more people had been coming to testing sites over the past few weeks.

Those involved with testing in the city, including Avegno, had warned in recent weeks that fewer people are seeking tests this fall relative to the city’s second wave in the summer.

Rachel Nelson, the area manager* for the nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort, which has been running mobile and walk-up testing sites around the metro area, said that there are still gaps in who’s seeking testing. “In general, the trend is that the richer and whiter you are, the more likely you are to have access to get tested consistently for COVID. And that’s exactly the population that’s at the lowest risk.”

But, Avegno said, “I want to remind everyone how fragile the situation in New Orleans is.”

“We are still seeing a high number of COVID-19 patients being admitted locally,” she said, “as well as accepting transfers from across the state.”

At the same time, the funding landscape for COVID response is poised to change dramatically.

CARES Act funding provided to the state of Louisiana for COVID relief is going to run out at the end of the month. Although the state has already run out of money allocated to directly support local governments, it’s used CARES funding to support its COVID testing efforts.

The Department of Health and Human Services also provided hundreds of millions of dollars directly to Louisiana hospitals and other healthcare centers to replace COVID expenditures and lost revenue.

But on December 30, all unspent CARES funding will revert to the federal government. Congress is reportedly working on a new COVID relief bill that could include more funding for testing, but the details are not yet public. The bill is not expected to include relief for state and local governments, although it could fund COVID responses separately.

And as vaccination efforts ramp up, it’s possible that resources could be diverted away from existing COVID response programs, like testing. Edwards has said that the Louisiana National Guard, which is currently providing personnel and logistical support for testing in New Orleans, may be tapped to help with vaccine distribution in the coming months.

“A lot of this is unknown,” Avegno said. “There is going to be a period of time where we might be testing and giving vaccine at the same time.” But, she said, the infrastructure the city has set up to provide testing will also be “critical” for distributing the vaccine to the general public. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re planning to roll one into the other.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Rachel Nelson, of the nonprofit organization Community Organized Relief Effort. Nelson is the organization’s area manager, not its director. (Dec. 18, 2020)