COVID Spike, New N.O. Rules and School Uncertainty Cause Concern

NEW ORLEANS – A recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Louisiana – along with a more dramatic spike in many states nationwide – is causing anxiety and uncertainty not seen since the height of the pandemic.

In its Gulf South Index, the Ehrhardt Group, a New Orleans-based public relations and marketing firm, said that “as the case numbers across the Gulf South and the nation begin to rise, so does a renewed unease over the course of the pandemic. In fact, as of July 4, concern regarding the coronavirus is at the highest level since late April, as 59% of U.S. adults are reporting that they are ‘very’ concerned.”

New Orleans bars, restaurants and venues are bracing themselves for new rules that go into effect Saturday. Under new guidelines, patrons won’t be able to order drinks or congregate at a bar. Instead, they’ll have to sit at tables inside or outside and order drinks from a server. Event venues (including wedding sites and funeral homes), meanwhile, will only be allowed to host 25 people at a time – down from 100. The daily paper reported that at least one New Orleans restaurant, Irene’s Cuisine, has decided to shut down rather than try to operate profitably under the new rules.

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Making matters worse, the $600-per-week federal boost to Louisiana’s unemployment insurance benefit is set to expire at the end of July and, as of now, lawmakers in Washington haven’t made any efforts to create a new aid package. That’s an urgent problem for the many hospitality industry and gig economy workers in New Orleans who have been able to pay rent and bills only because of the extra money. Louisiana’s maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit without the federal boost is $247, which many say won’t cover their cost of living while waiting for the economy to bounce back. The most recent data from the Louisiana Workforce Commission shows nearly 320,000 jobless claims across the state, down slightly from the peak of the pandemic but still historically high.

Meanwhile, the fall school year is due to begin next month but there are many more questions than answers about what that is going to look like and how it will affect the economy at large. Essentially, it’s unclear if students will be returning to school for in-person learning or if there will have to be some combination of on-site learning and distance learning. Some are calling for 100% learning from home. Parents are torn between safety concerns and the need to have their children in school so they can go to work.

The issue took on political overtones yesterday after President Donald Trump publicly criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines for being too “tough and expensive.” In New Orleans, meanwhile, the local teachers’ union hosted a virtual town hall to express safety concerns and to criticize NOLA Public Schools’ “Roadmap for Reopening,” which lays out a variety of scenarios depending on what phase of recovery New Orleans is in at the start of the school year. The union is worried about teacher safety although, in a bit of promising news, data is beginning to show that people under the age of 18 are less likely to contract and spread the virus than those who are older.

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Add to this concerns about rising evictions, a hibernating tourism industry and doubts about an economic boost from the fall sports calendar and you get a dire picture moving into the second half of 2020.

“It’s understandable that anxiety is high right now because there is so much uncertainty,” said New Orleans City Council Member Joe Giarrusso. “We’ve gone from a disease we new nothing about to a shutdown and then to a phased reopening. Now it seems like we’re moving a little bit backward. On a positive note, however, while it seems like New Orleans’ numbers are spiking a little bit now, once everybody hunkered down, our numbers got pretty good in a pretty quick fashion, so now it’s a question of exercising that same restraint that all New Orleanians did for such a long period of time.”

Giarrusso echoed the sentiments of many city and business leaders when he said that the key is to take care of the small business owners and workers whose livelihoods have been interrupted while efforts to stop the pandemic continue.

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“Public health is intertwined with economic health,” he said. “When you have small businesses – restaurants, bars and retail – not only are the people who own them not making any money but also the people who work there. The real questions is how do you help those people stay on solid footing as you deal with the health crisis.”

As of now, the Ehrhardt group report shows, consumers are feeling less comfortable doing things like dining out, shopping, going on vacation or going to the movies. If that trend continues, it’s going to make the road back to economic health that much rockier.

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