Some bars in New Orleans have replaced the festive Mardi Gras flags hanging from their establishments at this time of year with whites.
Beaux Church, director of Café Lafitte in Exile, Good Friends Bar and Rawhide 2010, said the white flags indicate that companies have surrendered to the city-wide crash during New Orleans’ most famous celebration.
“We had already bought all our food and drink supplies … and we got the rug pulled out from under us at the last minute,” Church said. “All bar owners would have been much better off with at least two weeks notice.”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, referring to coronavirus-related concerns, said on February 5 that all bars in the city would be closed for five days – from the Friday before Mardi Gras through Fat Tuesday itself, which falls on February 16 this year. Sales of spirits are not allowed in the French Quarter, not even in liquor stores, and to-go drinks are prohibited during the five days. Parades and large gatherings are already banned, and masks and social distances are required.
Officials hope to avoid a repeat of Mardi Gras 2020, which attracted over a million people to New Orleans to celebrate carnival and unknowingly contributed to the eruption and made the city’s hospitals reach capacity.
This means that the city’s tourist-dependent economy – consisting of restaurants, bars, small shops and hotels already hard hit by the pandemic – has little to look forward to this carnival season.
Cantrell said the restrictions are “necessary” and would prevent the deadly virus from spreading.
“This year I know what we know now, I will do everything I can to protect our people and save lives,” she said. “I’d rather be accused of doing too much than do too little.”
New Orleans is currently losing up to $ 130 million in visitor expenses per week due to Covid-19, according to New Orleans & Company, which promotes tourism in the city.
“New Orleans has a reputation and brand that far outweighs its actual size … and what we are seeing is the destruction of most of our economy,” said Stephen Perry, the agency’s executive director and president.
Before the coronavirus crisis, tourism and hospitality were among the major industries in the city and state. In 2019, Louisiana attracted nearly 53 million domestic visitors who spent approx. $ 18 billion according to a report from DK Shifflet, a consumer travel research firm.
Same year, New Orleans bid approx. 19 million tourists welcome, who spent $ 10 billion.
Cantrell’s decision to extend the restrictions in such a busy and lucrative time followed large gatherings on Bourbon Street and in other parts of the city in the days leading up to the holiday weekend, which Cantrell called “unacceptable.”
The church said security measures are important, but added that businesses and staff were dependent on the festivities for an increase in sales in what has been a troubling time for many people in the city.
“We brought many of our employees back for the holidays in hopes of making enough money to keep some of them for a while,” Church said. “We’re a tight group and it’s sad when you have to let so many people go.”
Like the church, business owners and operators in the city have struggled for nearly a year and have had reduced hours and different rules, which has led many to question whether their businesses can survive the pandemic. The recent restrictions are another blow to a tourism and hotel industry struggling to get past.
Without the usual Mardi Gras festivities, many businesses will miss out on an expected bump in profits, said Markus Schuckert, professor and director of the Hospitality Research Center at the University of New Orleans.
During the Mardi Gras season, hotel occupancy is usually at least 90 percent. However, the average occupancy rate in 2021 is about 20 percent, according to the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.
“Mardi Gras is a mega event held by locals for locals and tourists alike,” Schuckert said. “It involves the whole city and creates a huge impact on revenue because you have so many people coming here to spend money.”
New Orleans councilor Kristin Gisleson Palmer, whose zone includes the French Quarter, said her district is the biggest driver of the city’s earnings and the area hardest hit since the pandemic.
“It’s very worrying. … I’m afraid neighborhood bars and restaurants are closing and I hear from owners that every little income helps and they trusted [Mardi Gras]Said Palmer.
Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, president of Pat O’Brien’s, a French quarterly bar, said she was disappointed with the city’s recent squeeze and struggling with the idea of closing in the middle of the carnival.
Waguespack said the bar’s earnings fell 75 percent in 2020 compared to the year before. She also had to lay off 170 employees and currently has only about 30 people working.
“It’s our weekend in New Orleans, and the fact that we can not celebrate removes a large part of our being,” Waguespack said. “People are not aware of it, but Mardi Gras for us is much more than pearls in the streets. It’s a whole culture.”
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