New Orleans is only beginning to stir with life again as a handful of restaurants and businesses have begun opening their doors for the first time in more than two months - just in time for the unofficial kickoff of summer this Memorial Day weekend. But it's anybody's guess how long it will take tourists to return, and nobody in New Orleans seems in much of a hurry to leave. Nicole Oberkirch, a service industry worker for a local bar and grill, walked the French Quarter with a friend after brunch at CafT Maspero on Wednesday.
Much of the neighborhood is still boarded up, some places still offering only take-out and only a handful offering in-restaurant dining. There aren't many tourists to be found - the usual bread and butter for service industry workers on any holiday weekend. Oberkirch says locals are having to rely on each other. At least one out-of-towner made it to New Orleans. Pathologist and college administrator Greer Falls flew in from Augusta, Georgia, Wednesday morning and was having lunch in the French Quarter before meeting up with friends later that evening - the start of what would be a weeklong birthday celebration for his friend and coinciding with Memorial Day festivities.
The celebration was to start in Louisiana but would end in Pensacola, Florida. Falls wore a face mask as he entered the Royal House restaurant and oyster bar. 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. But after being homebound like much of the country, Falls said he was ready for a change of scenery and didn't want to miss celebrating with friends he's known for decades. 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. Falls, a pathologist and administrator at the Medical College of Georgia, said he advises anyone wanting to travel to plan ahead and bring a mask, or several. Many businesses are still closed, so Falls said it's a good idea to know what's open and to be prepared for tables to be spaced farther apart, paper menus and servers wearing masks and gloves.
Pretty much any business reopening is having to make changes, including popular summer attractions like the Audubon Zoo, which 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 nonprofit institute oversees nearly a dozen parks, museums and other facilities dedicated to nature, including the Audubon 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. "This is our busy season," she said. "We rely on this time of year to make up for the slower times of year. This time of year, we typically see about 750,000 visitors at our facilities. Now that this pandemic has happened, due to our reduced capacity, our limitation on groups and field trips and reduced tourism, we will see that number reduced by about 80 %."
But unlike other businesses closed to the public, the zoo and aquarium Dietz says the plan is to reopen the zoo the week of June 1, but an exact date has not yet been set. Online reservations will be required for entrance, and there will be timed ticketing to ensure a limited capacity within the zoo and for crowd management. There will also be increased cleaning and more hand-sanitization stations set up. Dietz says it's not clear how soon the aquarium or nearby butterfly garden and insectarium, also run by Audubon, will be reopening. Locals are not enough to sustain Audubon long-term, Dietz said. "We do need that out-of-town visitor base," she said. Audubon, like other large zoos and aquariums across the country, are 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 lay off 500 employees, Dietz said. Staff that have remained have taken pay cuts. Kari Mote, a New Orleans resident riding her bike through the French Quarter Wednesday, says she doesn't think it will take long for visitors to return.