by Anitra D. Brown

As expected, Mayor LaToya Cantrell recently announced guidelines for the first phase of the reopening of New Orleans as the city neared the end of its strict stay home mandate that expired in the middle of the month. If you are reading a printed copy of the May 2020 edition of The New Orleans Tribune, the city is likely already a couple of days into its reopening.

In New Orleans, Phase One will begin 6 a.m. Saturday, May 16. And as indicated by Mayor Cantrell, New Orleans’ guidelines, though similar, are stricter in some ways than those set by the state.

City officials say that contrasts between the state and city guidelines “were done with public health and safety as our guiding principles” and made “in accordance with the (Gov. John Bel Edwards’) acknowledgment that parishes must develop their own guidelines.”

“We have been very intentional and have shaped these guidelines based on the data, as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, and based on science. We have gotten to this milestone because of the sacrifices our people have made. You took this seriously, you paid attention, and it mattered,” said Mayor Cantrell. “We are seeing a reason for hope in the critical milestones that we are looking at.”

One of the stark differences between guidelines set forth by the city of New Orleans and those outlined by state of Louisiana is the continued closure of casinos and video poker establishments during the first phase of reopening in New Orleans.

Also under the city’s guidelines, businesses such as restaurants with table service, beauty salons and barber shops, museums, zoos and aquariums should use a reservation or appointment system to log the name and phone number of all customers and keep that information on file for three weeks—a proposal made by Mayor Cantrell in earlier discussions about the city’s reopening and one that had come under fire by those concerned about privacy issues.

Mayor Cantrell rebuffed concerns that customers at certain businesses would be inconvenienced or forced to submit to undue scrutiny by this measure.

“It’s nothing more than a reservation,” she said. “A name and a phone number—that’s what it is. Restaurants have been taking reservations since forever.”

It is also a measure that city officials say will be integral in assisting with contact tracing, the process of determining who a COVID-positive resident has come in close contact with in order to ensure that those individuals learn they may have been exposed to coronavirus and take necessary steps to mitigate the spread of the disease.

Mayor Cantrell said business owners will be responsible for ensuring that both their employees and patrons wear masks.

“We have been very intentional and have shaped these guidelines based on the data, as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, and based on science. We have gotten to this milestone because of the sacrifices our people have made. You took this seriously, you paid attention, and it mattered,” said Mayor Cantrell. “We are seeing a reason for hope in the critical milestones that we are looking at.”

City officials also warn that a spike in cases will signal a return to strict stay home measures. And state officials have also cautioned that they stand ready to dial back on reopening efforts if cases spike, though Gov. Edwards indicated that reversing to stricter stay-at-home mandates might be done on a parish-by-parish basis.

“We are very closely monitoring and will continue to monitor the situation and must be prepared to reinstate restrictions if needed, if the trends go in an unfavorable direction,” said City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno. “Remember how quickly our cases came and how close we came to being overwhelmed.” 

Further bringing home the message that nothing is written with a permanent marker, Mayor Cantrell says the order that ushers in the first phase of city’s reopening does not have an expiration date.

“You will not see a date on the next order,” she said. “We will move through this as the data shows us additional changes (are warranted).” 

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD

At the press conference where the Mayor outlined the reopening, City Councilman-at-large Jason Williams thanked Mayor Cantrell for her leadership and the people of New Orleans for their efforts at slowing the spread of COVID-19 by following the stay home order and taking other precautions, while also suggesting that just because the city has eased restrictions does not mean every business should open or resident in New Orleans should go out just yet.

“Just because you can do something does not mean you need to do something,” Williams said. “I can tell you my 73-year-old mother will follow the same protocol she followed two weeks ago.”

Councilman Williams is not the only one cautioning folk to tread lightly as stay-at-home restrictions are eased across the city, state, and nation.

In late April, around the same time several governors across the country first began to clamor to reopen their states, a group of national civil rights leaders wrote a letter urging Black businesses, Black churches and Black Americans to protect themselves by continuing to stay at home and to keep businesses and churches closed even if restrictions were eased.

The letter authored by Rev. Al Sharpton (National Action Network), Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson (CNBC), Sherrilyn Ifill (NAACP, LDF), Marc Morial (National Urban League), Derrick Johnson (NAACP), Melanie Campbell (BWR), Kristen Clarke (Lawyers’ Committee), in part, read:

“We, the undersigned, have joined together to state our unequivocal and firm opposition to the premature effort of governors to willfully re-open their states. The actions of these governors, which demonstrate reckless disregard for the health and life of Black residents, compel us to speak out and take action to protect ourselves.” 

The letter continued, “We encourage all Black churches and businesses to remain closed during this critical period. The denominations and independent churches represented in this statement, which comprise a combined membership of more than 25 million people and more than 30,000 congregations, intend to remain closed and to continue to worship virtually, with the same dedication and love that we brought to the church. The civil rights organizations represented are working tirelessly to protect our communities from injustice and inequality as this country responds to the pandemic.”

To be sure, Louisiana’s Black residents have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s devasting impact. While African Americans comprise just under 33 percent of the state’s population, they now account for roughly 60 percent of COVID-related deaths. At one-point, Black Louisianans were as much as 70 percent of the COVID deaths in this state. The economic impact of the virus is also disproportionately felt by Black Louisianans as it exacerbates existing inequities in income, wealth, and wages.

While officials in Louisiana and individual parishes in the state are easing restrictions, they are still urging residents to practice social distancing, encouraging seniors and people with serious medical conditions to continue to stay home, and encouraging everyone to wear a face covering in public. In the city of New Orleans, officials have made masks a requirement.  

Meanwhile Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, stands by his warning that states and cities could face serious consequences if they reopen too soon without the capabilities to handle what he believes will be an inevitable uptick in cases once activity begins to resume.

“My concern that if some areas — cities, states or what have you — jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up, without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Dr. Fauci said during testimony made during a Senate hearing on May 12. “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.

Officials in both Louisiana and New Orleans assert that criteria for easing restrictions as set by the White House and based on CDC guidelines have been met, with both Gov. Edwards and Mayor Cantrell devoting press conferences to reviewing that data with the public as a precursor to announcing the end of strict mandates.

To reach Phase One of reopening, progress needed to be made in reaching several key milestones, including a steady decline in cases as a percentage of total tests, increased testing capacity, increased health care capacity and robust contact tracing system.

During his Senate testimony, Dr. Fauci also reminded that those capabilities are critical for reopening.

“This is something that I think we should also pay attention to, that states, even if they are (reopening) at an appropriate pace, which many of them are and will—namely a pace that is commensurate with the dynamics of the outbreak—that they have in place already the capability that when there will be cases, there is no doubt that even under the best of circumstance, when you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases appear. It’s the ability and the capability of responding to those cases with identification, isolation and contract tracing (that) will determine whether you can go forward as you try to reopen America.” 

While some states may not have those capabilities in place, officials here assert that Louisiana does. However, Assistant State Health Department Secretary Dr. Alexander Billioux has repeatedly noted that identifying cases, locating individuals who may have been exposed and adhering to strict isolation measures in those cases will only be as effective as residents are cooperative.

Dr. Avegno says the New Orleans Health Department stands ready to assist the state with contact tracing. 

Some 250 contact tracers are expected to be in place and working by May 17. Mayor Cantrell says one of the state’s contact tracing call centers will be in New Orleans. In all, Gov. Edwards has said Louisiana expects to hire at least 700 contact tracers. 

The Governor also says that Louisiana is on pace to test 200,000 resident per month beginning in May thanks to a commitment of additional testing supplies from the federal government.

And while there have been new cases every day since May 9, over the last few weeks, Louisiana has mostly seen a trending decline in both the number of hospitalizations and in ventilator use—signaling that when new cases begin to appear, the healthcare system should be equipped to handle them without being overwhelmed

Phase One for Orleans Parish

In New Orleans, shopping malls and retail stores with exterior entrances, restaurants, bars with state food permits, churches, beauty salons and barber shops, zoos, aquariums, museums, libraries, and childcare facilities are among the businesses that will be allowed to reopen in Phase One with some conditions.

In the first phase of reopening, businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their permitted capacity. For indoor seating, restaurants must arrange tables so that individual parties are six feet apart. In New Orleans, guidelines specify that restaurants should not serve any alcoholic beverage to a patron who is not also purchasing food and that theu cannot allow patrons to play video poker machines. In the case of beauty salons and barber shops, services are by appointment only, chairs must be six feet apart, gloves must be worn and changed between customers.

Churches and movie theaters are also limited to 25 percent of permitted occupancy or 100 people, whichever is fewer. And because of social distancing guidelines, church choirs are still not permitted.

Childcare facilities, schools and extracurricular programs can resume with a limit of 10 people per group, meaning one adult for every nine children in these programs.

Gyms and fitness centers can open at a 25 percent of their capacity, but no contact sports or group fitness classes are allowed, and the use of locker rooms, showers, saunas, and spas are also prohibited.

In conjunction with the eased restrictions, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is ramping up services and reinstituting fares. All buses will run a Saturday schedule seven days a week. And all suspended lines will resume service beginning Sunday, May 17.

Audubon Riverview Park reopens to pedestrians and bicycle traffic on May 16, but no cars will be allowed. The opening of Audubon’s zoo, insectarium and aquarium are likely weeks away as Audubon officials work to ensure these facilities meet protocols such as social distancing and capacity guidelines.

Share Button