Photo: Claire Bangser, AFP Via Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS – On a typical Saturday night, snagging a coveted balcony table overlooking Bourbon Street in the French Quarter would be nearly impossible. But here were Mariah Castille and Tyler Labiche, sharing chips and dip, somewhat stunned by almost everything about this evening.
It was Day 1 of Phase 1 – when the stay-home order was lifted and New Orleans was supposed to begin coming back to life. For the first time in two months, most businesses were allowed to open. Restaurants and food-serving bars could seat customers at 25% capacity.
After a miserable season of canceled music festivals, social isolation, sickness and death, it was time to get the party started again. Labiche, 30, and Castille, had made a weekend getaway from their Lafayette, Louisiana, home a two-hour drive away.
“We thought the first day back, this place would be packed,” Labiche said. “It’s one of the biggest party places on the planet.”
Castille peered over the elegant wrought-iron balcony of the Cornet restaurant down to barren Bourbon Street.
“It feels like a ghost town,” she said. “Like we’re not supposed to be here.”
Across New Orleans, it was the same story: Residents were hesitant to venture back out in a city that once was an epicenter of the novel coronavirus, even though social distancing has paid off with sharply decreased rates of infection.
Tourists were scarce, too. On Bourbon Street alone, three huge hotels with many hundreds of rooms between them sat shuttered.
The streets of the French Quarter were empty enough for six young women on bicycles to ride down the center of Bourbon Street with glow sticks on their spokes. Their shrieks briefly animated the night.
“For a minute, it sounds like New Orleans,” said one seafood employee standing on the sidewalk, before he resumed his futile call to the few passersby: “Free appetizer or free cocktail with the purchase of an entree!”
Three of the restaurant’s 147 seats were filled at that moment – “We never got close to 25%,” the manager said.
Labiche and Castille had mixed feelings about the unnatural tranquility of the Quarter: “It’s nice to know that people are being cautious,” Labiche said. “But it’s still a little terrifying to see nobody coming out and spending money to keep the economy going.”
In announcing the move to a restricted reopening for Phase 1 last week, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she was balancing public health with economic needs. A similar set of Phase 1 guidelines were set by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, for the rest of Louisiana, taking effect a day earlier.
“We’re about to turn the faucet on, but not high stream,” Cantrell said of the limited reopening. “We’re just going to get a little bit of this water, and we’re going to test it, and we’re going to be able to respond should we need to turn that faucet off.”
Many businesses are thirsty for that water. Food and beer trucks started appearing around town last week as some restaurants and bars laid in supplies.
But in a sign of the ambivalent nature of this reopening, several business owners said they were going to pass up the opportunity for now. To them, it’s still too soon to bring customers in safely and make employees cook in cramped kitchens. And it doesn’t make economic sense to operate at 25% capacity, they said, which all but guarantees that they will lose money.
“We want to stay relevant, we want people not to forget about us – but we also need to preserve our capital, because this is going to be a long-run kind of deal,” said Archie Casbarian, co-owner of Arnaud’s, a thousand-seat restaurant just off Bourbon Street, which is joining several of the city’s fancier restaurants in staying shut.
“I’m not going to let people inside; I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” said Howie Kaplan, owner of the Howlin’ Wolf music club in the warehouse district. While Kaplan cannot present live music under the rules of Phase 1, he could serve food indoors to enhance his daily takeout business. “I don’t think it’s safe for my customers; I don’t think it’s safe for my staff. . . . The reality is, people are still afraid.”
For many others, opening day dawned with high hopes. At Estrella Steak & Lobster House near the waterfront, owner Amer Bader assembled a skeleton staff of four for a pep talk ahead of the 11 a.m. opening. On a pre-pandemic Saturday, the 75-seat restaurant could take in at least $5,000. Bader requires $2,000 per day to break even.
“I need everybody wearing a mask,” Bader told his crew. “Be as courteous as possible – customers are going to be on edge.”
Staff members took their positions – and waited two hours for the first customer, who was John Simpson, 37, an oil company employee who drove an hour to be on hand for New Orleans’ reawakening. He ordered the red fish.
“I want to support New Orleans and the French Quarter,” he said. “I think it’s time for more people to come out of their homes.”
Dequrez and Michelle Gulley felt the same way as they emerged from an otherwise empty bar on Bourbon Street carrying plastic cups filled with Blueberry Hill cocktails – active ingredient: berry-infused vodka. Tired of being cooped up in the Tampa, Florida, area the day before, they found a cheap, spur-of-the-moment flight to the Big Easy.
“If you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it,” said Dequrez Gulley, 37, an account manager for a soft drink company. “My big thing is: God is still in charge.”
A few familiar characters also ventured back: There was a lone tarot card reader in Jackson Square, where dozens of street performers, musicians and artists ordinarily cater to tourists.
Lucky Dog vendor Nathan Neal set up his hot dog-shaped cart, made famous by the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces,” outside a Walgreen’s on Royal Street. He had sold three hot dogs by early evening compared with a typical night when he would sell at least 60. But, he said, he’d “rather be here doing nothing than sitting at home doing nothing.”
Adam Harlow sat on his pedicab at a corner in the heart of the Quarter. He had one ride in three hours – two women who drove from Dallas. He charged them $20 for a one-hour trip that would normally cost $60.
“I didn’t expect anyone. I just came out to stretch my legs and get a feel for the Quarter,” he said. “The most rewarding thing for me today was the first people who came up and said, ‘Welcome back. It’s good to see you.’ “
Even for those who ventured out, it wasn’t a return to normal.
At Buffa’s Lounge on the edge of the Quarter, Mark Cecil, 51, a credit union employee, raised his beer bottle for a sip and found an unexpected obstruction: “It’s not the first time today I’ve tried to shove a beer bottle through my mask,” he said.
He and his friend Natalie Greene, 48, who live in the neighborhood, had scanned the lounge to be sure Buffa’s was following all the safety rules – masks, separated tables, hand sanitizer and so on – before feeling comfortable coming in for dinner. As required, Buffa’s was also taking down the names and phone numbers of customers, in case someone tests positive and contact tracing is needed.
“I need to face my fear and go,” Greene said of her decision to come out. And yet, “As much as I want to come back to normal, I worry about other people [being infected] and having then to go backwards” to more restrictions.
“I think it’s necessary that things begin to reopen,” Cecil said. “We’re kind of reaching the point where the economic impact becomes a public health impact.”
Most of the Quarter was quiet by 10 p.m., except for a bluesy guitar serenading one block on Bourbon Street. The musician had set up his amplifier and microphone on a balcony above one of the last open bars.
He started playing a French Quarter favorite, a mournful anthem called “Hurricane.” As the tale unfolded of the terrible calamity that couldn’t conquer New Orleans, a few staggering partyers stopped and stood transfixed in the middle of Bourbon Street.
The evening ended early, but there’s always a morning after in New Orleans – and this Sunday morning was the first time church could resume in person. Houses of worship are allowed to reopen at 25% capacity or 100 worshipers, whichever is fewer.
Just before 10 a.m., Catherine Tate stood near the entrance of St. Augustine Church in Treme, just outside the Quarter, and welcomed parishioners. Tate, an usher, was exultant. She raised her hands toward the heavens and jumped up and down.
“My heart is full,” she said.
Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga mentioned the virus only briefly in his sermon, but its presence was everywhere. Like the restaurant crowd the night before, attendance was underwhelming: 17 people in a church that is often standing-room only. Most chose to stay home and watch the service online. Those present all wore masks. And St. Augustine’s famous choir was also missing, since choirs are not permitted under the city’s guidelines.
The collection basket was placed on the floor for people to donate as they wished. The moment in the service when neighbors shake hands and wish peace upon one another was replaced with friendly waving. For the first post-pandemic communion, Mulenga put on his mask, washed his hands with sanitizer, and placed a wafer in the outstretched hands of his parishioners. Wine was not offered.
This was not the St. Augustine Tate is used to, but hardly anything is the same. Her brother is in the hospital after contracting covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. His condition is improving, but the family has yet to tell him that while he was on a ventilator, his son died from the disease.
And yet, Tate said she took comfort that her second family, the St. Augustine congregation, can come together again – slowly at first, in phases, like the rest of the city.
But that was enough reason to rejoice, she said, and to believe that better days lie ahead.