Unlike some political leaders around the country, nobody can accuse New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell of taking shortcuts in the fight to contain COVID-19.
Quite the opposite. After Mardi Gras 2020 turned out to be a superspreading event, and with a clear-eyed understanding that residents faced disproportionate danger from the virus, Cantrell didn’t hesitate to shut things down.
The cancellations of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations shocked the festive city’s system and were a sign of much more to come. Big events were postponed and postponed again, gatherings were broken up, restaurants and bars were severely restricted. The tourists who normally prime New Orleans’ economy mostly stayed away, although that probably had more to do with health concerns than government restrictions. When equally cautious Gov. John Bel Edwards incrementally reopened the state, Cantrell stuck to a slower timetable.
It hasn’t all gone off without a hitch. At times, the city has sent mixed signals over who was welcome and what visitors and residents were allowed to do. Enforcement hasn’t always been consistent, and choices over what would be open or closed raised legitimate questions.
Overall, though, Cantrell has remained singularly committed to playing it safe, and the numbers vindicate her go-slow approach. The seven-day rolling average of daily cases last week was 26, the lowest since November. Fewer than 2% of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive. More than 21% of the population had gotten at least one vaccine shot, with almost 12% fully vaccinated, putting the city above both state and national averages.
That success justifies Cantrell’s decision last week to loosen restrictions more than at any time since the pandemic first hit the city so hard.
New Orleans isn’t back to normal — not even close — but Cantrell’s announcement brings it as close as it’s been in a year. As of Friday, restaurants, retail stores, and salons are allowed to fill up to 75% of their stated capacity, up from the previous 50%. Bars are now allowed 50% capacity indoors. And live indoor music is finally back, although under strict regulations.
There’s still reason for caution, with new variants out there and with herd immunity still on the horizon. And bringing back live music after all this time isn’t like flipping a switch; safety requirements for air circulation and personal distancing will be difficult for small venues to manage, and club owners expect to take their time to assess the situation.
The fact that they can, though, represents genuine progress. And if residents handle the latest changes responsibly and stick to continued safety protocols, still better news hopefully awaits.
"We stand before you all to say that we are doing good," Cantrell said while announcing the changes. "And we are doing well because people have demonstrated civic trust, and they have been doing the right thing to get us where we are today."
The reward is all the sweeter for having been hard-earned.