New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a Jan. 4, 2021 press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans will lift its “modified phase one” COVID-19 restrictions — based in-part on improving percent positivity data — allowing increased capacity at many businesses. 

On Friday, the city will move to what it calls “modified phase two,” which will last three weeks. Citing the risks of carnival season and the British COVID variant, however, the city’s restrictions will remain tighter than those of the state until the end of carnival season.

“We know now that last Mardi Gras likely contributed to the early and rapid spread of COVID and claimed the lives of many,” city Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said at a Wednesday press conference.

With the change, the city will allow restaurants — and bars with temporary restaurant permits — along with many other businesses to return to 50 percent indoor capacity. People will also be allowed to gather with others outside of their immediate household under certain circumstances.

The city pulled back from phase two restrictions earlier this month as post-holiday case counts and hospitalizations surged. The average daily case count as of this week is about half of what it was at the beginning of the month, according to city infection data. And the city’s test positivity rate is four percent, down from nearly 10 percent early in the month.

Under current state regulations, if the city maintains a positivity rate below five percent for another week, bars without restaurant permits, which are now only allowed to serve takeout and outdoor seating, could be allowed to reopen. But city officials said they will wait until after the city’s next major holiday to consider relaxing that restriction. 

“Bars will remain closed throughout this phase and through Mardi Gras, regardless of positivity rates,” said Beau Tidwell, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “Indoor bar seating drives cases. It becomes a superspreader event.”

Louisiana as a whole is currently in “modified phase two” restrictions, which limits most businesses, including restaurants, to 50 percent indoor capacity. It also requires parishes with higher than five percent test positivity to close indoor bar service, and restrict outdoor seating to 25 percent capacity. Those restrictions are set to last until February 10. New Orleans has the authority to set stricter guidelines, however.

“Over the last three weeks, we’ve seen an improvement in all of the metrics that we watch,” Avegno said. “Cases are falling, but they’re higher than we want them to be. Hospitalizations are slowly improving, both in New Orleans and statewide, but make no mistake, our hospitals are still stretched.”

The decline in the positivity rate coincides with the return of Tulane University’s in-person classes. Tulane has a uniquely large surveillance-testing operation, and has conducted more than 10,000 PCR tests over the past week alone. The Louisiana Department of Health, by comparison, reported 30,000 tests on Tuesday statewide.

“To be clear, this isn’t where we need to be yet,” Tidwell said. “There’s a very clear cause and effect. When the numbers go up, we make an adjustment, and the numbers go back down. That’s not abstract. Those are lives being saved.”

Hospital beds, meanwhile, remain in critical short-supply, according to the city’s definition. More than 70 percent in the New Orleans area have been occupied for the last 10 days.

“We’re making these changes because our business community has proven that they can conduct business safely when they follow the guidelines,” Avegno said.

She pointed to social gatherings as the primary driver of community spread, calling out specifically “a wedding, a party, backyard barbecue, a second line, an event at an event space.”

“In these settings, people are mingling, they’re mixing, they’re not generally seated,” she said. “They’re often not very distant. They’re often in a situation where they’re taking off their masks.”

She argued that that was different from office buildings, classrooms, or restaurants, where customers are seated far apart.

Avegno said that although New Orleans is still in better shape than in March and April, “the progress we’ve made could change with a single person carrying one of the variants.”

Earlier this month, LDH announced that a COVID patient in New Orleans was found to be infected with the British COVID variant called B.1.1.7. That variant, along with two other strains first found in Brazil and South Africa, is more contagious, and appears to be more likely to reinfect people who have already recovered from COVID.

“If you’re following what’s happening [in the UK],” Avegno said, “they’re back in full lockdown with their hospitals overwhelmed and their death rates surging.”