NEW ORLEANS – Bar owners in New Orleans prepared for a soft opening, and an uncertain one, as they began letting customers in Saturday for the first time in months. Capacity is limited to 25 percent, live music remains prohibited, and nobody knows how many tourists will show on Bourbon Street in the age of COVID-19.
Pam Fortner, owner of six French Quarter venues, is opening only two of them, both on Bourbon, where the customary blocks-long frat party atmosphere ended in an abrupt shutdown in mid-March.
Now, she's not sure what to expect. She sat at a sidewalk table at Royal and St. Ann on Thursday, eating a Caesar salad and deriving hope from the occasional out-of-state license plate she saw amid sparse traffic.
“I think Saturday will be busy,” she said in an interview.
Cherie Boos, manager of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, in an authentically rustic, creaky floored 18th-century Creole cottage, said she's hoping locals will help keep the bar financially afloat as Bourbon Street revives. But she adds, “We’re hoping that, you know, we can start generating some tourists in the city, too, now that the bars are going to be open.”
Bourbon Street, which had the ambiance of an empty movie set in April, has experienced a slow re-awakening in recent weeks. Dine-in restaurants have been allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, as have bars with food permits. Still, traffic has been slow and plywood covered numerous tavern windows until Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the latest easing of restrictions in a city that, in the spring, had become an international hot spot for COVID-19.
Even as they announced the reopenings on Tuesday, city officials admitted they were concerned about a possible recurrence.
“Oh, I'm worried. I am worried,” Cantrell said at a news conference. She said city code enforcement officials will watch to make sure social distancing, masking requirements and building capacity limits are enforced.
Customers will have to be mindful, too, said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city's health director. “If you're there, with your household group and you're having drinks at a table at a bar, we really need you not to go off and mingle with the other tables," she said Tuesday.
Toward that end, there will be no musicians on stage at Fortner's Tropical Isle bars on Bourbon Street. That prevents people from congregating near the stage and eliminates the possibility that a singer belting out a song could also be unknowingly spreading the virus. That fear that has kept the city from allowing live music performances, including choirs in churches.
Some New Orleans bar owners are critical of the restrictions. “Why are they picking on the musicians?” said Fortner.
And some bars, like the Maple Leaf, a venerable late night haunt in the Carrollton neighborhood, decided not to open.
‘While our City leaders have decided to allow bars to reopen ... we will not be allowed to have Live Music and what is the Leaf without our musicians?" read a post on the Maple Leaf’s Facebook page.
One of the quarter's best known tourist spots, Pat O'Brien's, also didn't plan an immediate reopening. Manager Shelley Waguespack has numerous concerns as she decides when and how to reopen.
She's hoping the state Legislature will address one concern — liability. She said she worries about getting sued if someone who visits the bar later comes down with COVID-19.
She's also unhappy about the limits on live music.
“We wanted to put a piano player on the patio,” Waguespack said. “We thought that would have been lovely.”