New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell tells reporters the city's mask mandate will remain in place at a press conference Thursday.

New Orleans will loosen some business capacity restrictions, but leave its mask mandate in place, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a press conference Thursday morning. The changes follow Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision on Tuesday to lift the statewide mask mandate.

“New Orleans is a safer place because of the guidelines we have had in place for the last year,” Cantrell said. “We’re safer to live and visit. We want to remain on that trajectory.”

Starting Friday, all businesses that adhere to the city’s social distancing and mask requirements will be able to open to 100 percent capacity. 250 people will be able to gather indoors, and 500 outdoors, as long as those same requirements are met.

The restriction on dancing remains in place, and bars will still close at 1 AM. Cantrell attributed the bar decision in particular to the city’s stretched-thin emergency services, which were hit by both COVID and furloughs earlier in the pandemic.

The conference did not address whether the city would adjust its enforcement of those policies or support for businesses following the practices, although Cantrell noted that hospitality workers have faced conflicts from guests who are resistant to COVID precautions.

On Tuesday, the governor significantly relaxed the state’s mask mandate, which has been in place since July. The new masking order allows businesses to set their own policies, although healthcare facilities, schools, and government buildings continue to have a mask mandate. Cities and parishes are still free to set more stringent guidelines, as New Orleans has done through much of the pandemic. A NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman said the district will still require students and staff to wear masks.

However, Edwards said that masking is still recommended by the state Department of Health and the CDC. He also noted that businesses are only shielded from COVID liability when they adhere to CDC mask recommendations.

This week, the CDC also updated its masking guidance, saying that outdoor transmission risk was low enough that it didn’t recommend masks outdoors unless people were in close proximity, as in crowds.

Following the governor’s announcement, Jefferson Parish’s president, Cynthia Lee Sheng, issued a proclamation that left the parish largely following state guidelines. Individual businesses will be allowed to set their own rules, but masks will still be required in government buildings, including libraries.

Decisions by Mississippi and Texas governors to lift mask mandates last month came under fire from public health experts, who called the decisions premature without a higher vaccination rate. 

Asked why the city wouldn’t follow the looser mask policies adopted by other parishes, Cantrell said, “We’re safer. We’re the safest in the state of Louisiana.”

Vaccinations have leveled off over the last few weeks, and the city is only about halfway to its goal of 75 percent fully vaccinated. Over each of the past three state reporting periods, only about 2,000 new people received first doses. As of Monday, 43 percent of residents had received a first dose, and 36 percent had been fully vaccinated.

“This level is not sufficient … to welcome the millions of national and international visitors that come to our city every year,” Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city’s health director, said at the conference.

“We only need to look so far as Michigan to see that the potential for a continued surge is very possible.”