New Orleans will remain in Phase 2 of its coronavirus reopening as the rest of the state moves to Phase 3 on Friday under Gov. John Bel Edwards' order.
The city will remain in Phase 2 "til kids get back in school," Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
"That's the priority around here. As we move forward, we'll measure how well we do and continue to rotate public school students back into that classroom until we are at 100 percent," Cantrell said.
Students in PreK through the fourth-grade are set to resume in-person learning next week through Sept. 25. If current data trends hold, the district hopes to return older students to the classroom in mid-October.
Cantrell congratulated the community on its adherence to public safety guidelines and called next week’s reopening of schools an “exciting moment” for the city.
“This didn’t just happen,” Cantrell said. “It happened because the public showed civic trust in leadership.”
New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno cautioned that loosening restrictions could jeopardize student’s return to the classroom.
"Our behavior can’t change. We have to continue to do the things that got us here," Avegno said. "We will continue to watch this extremely closely."
Cantrell said that while the majority of New Orleanians have been “doing the right thing,” compliance is still a problem.
Over Labor Day weekend there were reports of large gatherings on Bourbon Street and in other parts of the city. Cantrell said moving forward the city will be more aggressive when it comes to issuing citations.
Cantrell also said her administration is looking into whether the city can remove government benefits from those caught violating coronavirus guidelines.
“We cannot in any way afford as a city to lose a generation of our children,” Cantrell said. “They will continue to be our top priority.”
Avegno said the benefits of reopening schools go beyond education and that getting kids back in the classroom will also have a positive impact on the city’s public health and economy. With children back at school, parents can go back to work and children will have access to essential wraparound services like school meals and counseling.
Over the past week, the number of COVID-19 cases in New Orleans experienced a slight increase, which Avegno said “seems to be largely tied” to college students returning to the city.
At Tulane University, 465 students have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 4. The majority of cases have been asymptomatic, according to university officials.
Avegno said that because the city’s other metrics have remained “robust,” and she believes cases among college students are “contained” and don’t pose a threat to the larger community. Coupled with the city’s low positivity rate, Avegno said it’s safe to proceed with reopening schools.
Bars Remain Closed And High School Contact Sports Banned
Orleans is one of five parishes permitted to reopen bars under Phase 3 guidelines. With the city set to stay in Phase 2 until at least the middle of next month, Cantrell acknowledged the impact it would have on the industry.
“I understand, it’s tough. From the bars to the bartenders to all the business owners in the city of New Orleans, no, it’s not fair at all,” Cantrell said. “But we’re looking for a local solution to a federal problem. Looking at the local government to solve all of that is a false expectation.”
Another tough sell? Football. With the city under Phase 2, contact sports are still banned. While neighboring parishes can begin to suit up for practices and participate in scrimmishes and games, New Orleans high school teams cannot.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any football games in the city. The New Orleans Saints will play their season-opening game this weekend after receiving a workplace exemption from the state. There will be no spectators and tailgating is banned.
College football, which is regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is also in full swing. Tulane University will have its first game of the season this weekend and it’s first home game on Sept. 19. Tulane said its policies, including having 250 in-person fans, have been cleared by the city.