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A slow reawakening in New Orleans as restrictions are eased

Last Updated May 23, 2020 at 1:20 pm PDT

New Orleans is stirring to life as the country heads into the Memorial Day holiday weekend with restaurants and businesses slowly opening their doors for the first time in more than two months of coronavirus-related shutdowns.

In the French Quaarter, many bars and other businesses remain boarded up, but a handful of restaurants were offering limited on-premises dining. And Cafe du Monde, where tables and tourist were usually inches apart before the pandemic shutdown, is open again, with widely spaced tables and limited capacity.

How soon visitors will be willing to return to the city in large numbers is anybody’s guess.

“It’s definitely strange,” said Nicole Oberkirch, a service industry worker who walked the French Quarter with a friend after brunch at Café Maspero earlier in the week. “I don’t think that the tourists are going to be down here like they were, so we’re all trying to … support each other, have drinks and go to all the restaurants and everything we can do to help each other out.”

At least some out-of-towners are trickling into New Orleans. Greer Falls of Augusta, Georgia, flew in Wednesday morning and was having lunch in the French Quarter before meeting up with friends later that evening. He said he was visiting for a weeklong birthday celebration for a friend that would end next Wednesday in Pensacola, Florida.

Falls wore a face mask as he entered the Royal House restaurant and oyster bar, which reopened for the first time Wednesday. He said it was only his second meal in a restaurant since the coronavirus outbreak and his first trip outside of Augusta since the beginning of the year.

“To be honest, the first four to five weeks of this, I barely left my house, and if I did, it was for a walk or to the grocery store and back,” he said.

Falls said a lot of people are feeling “stir crazy, COVID stir crazy,” but most are likely not ready to venture too far from home – at least not yet.

“By July Fourth, I suspect that you’re going to see more folks travelling,” he said.

The Audubon Zoo is slated to open the week of June 1 although an exact date has not yet been set, said Rebecca Dietz, executive vice-president of public affairs and general counsel for the Audubon Nature Institute.

The non-profit institute oversees nearly a dozen parks, museums and other facilities dedicated to nature, including the zoo and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.

Dietz says all the Audubon facilities have been closed for 10 weeks at a loss of about $21 million.

Locals are not enough to sustain Audubon long-term, Dietz said. “We do need that out-of-town visitor base,” she said.

Audubon was not eligible for federal recovery funds, Dietz said, adding that due to the company’s size, it doesn’t qualify for forgivable loan options like many other businesses do.

The company has already had to cut pay and lay off 500 employees, Dietz said.

Kari Mote, a New Orleans resident riding her bike through the French Quarter, said she doesn’t think it will take long for visitors to return.

“I think people are going to rally,” she said. “I think we’re going to be surprised at how many people are going to show up. New Orleans is amazing. Everybody wants to come here.”

As of Saturday, Louisiana has more than 37,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Deaths related to the disease totalled 2,560. The state has eased economically devastating restrictions on business and public gatherings because of factors such as the declining percentage of new cases relative to a growing number of tests, and a steady drop in hospitalizations that peaked at over 2,100 in April. The number was 836 Saturday.

Most people recover from COVID-19, but patients with other health problems and the elderly are particularly susceptible.

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Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this story.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

Stacey Plaisance, The Associated Press