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Indoor Service At Bars In New Orleans Shuts Down As COVID-19 Rate Jumps Past Threshold

Ben Depp for WWNO
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaking at a press conference in March.

New Orleans’ bars and breweries are being forced to halt indoor service, as the city’s COVID-19 test percent positivity rate has remained above 5 percent for two straight weeks.

City officials had warned of “looming restrictions'' if Orleans Parish didn’t drop below the 5 percent positivity rate. The restrictions on indoor service will begin at 11 p.m. Wednesday, one day ahead of New Year’s Eve. Bars can still provide to-go drinks and outdoor service to seated patrons at socially distanced tables with a cap of 50 people or 25 percent capacity.

Orleans is the last parish in Louisiana to ban indoor bar service since Gov. John Bel Edwards initiated the modified Phase 2 restrictions statewide in November, as the area’s percent positivity rate had remained low enough to keep guests inside, save for the week of Nov. 26 to Dec. 1 when the rate hit 5.2 percent.

Louisiana also reported large fluctuations in testing in recent days. The Louisiana Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard reported 5,878 tests on Monday Dec. 28 for the state , which is lower than the 20 thousand to 30 thousand tests that it reports for most weekdays. It reported 37,356 new tests on Tuesday and 52,109 on Wednesday.

Changes in testing due to the holidays are likely not responsible for the percent positivity rate remaining high, Dr. Jason Halperin, HIV and infectious disease clinical lead at CrescentCare, explained.

Known for its sexual health and HIV clinics, CrescentCare operates a walk-in testing site at its city headquarters, which borders the 7th Ward and St. Roch neighborhoods. Halperin leads the COVID-19 medical clinic.

“Percent positivity rate does take into account the number of tests that are performed,” Halperin said. “I actually think around the holidays more people come in to get tested and [the rate] is likely showing us a way more accurate number.”

Halperin said that it’s probable that people experiencing potential symptoms of COVID-19 are getting tested at higher rates during the holidays to try to avoid transmitting the virus to loved ones at gatherings.

“The real reason it would go up then is that many more symptomatic people were going out of their way to be careful and get tested,” Halperin said.

The state does not provide data on how many positive tests were administered on individuals who were symptomatic or asymptomatic.

All but one parish on The Louisiana Department of Health’s map of community risk by parish, are colored red, meaning they are experiencing the highest risk level. None of the parishes that surround New Orleans have rates below 6 percent. In neighboring Jefferson Parish the percent positivity rate is 11.5, up from 10.6 and in St. Tammany Parish the percent positivity rate is 11.7, up from 10.1. The rate in St. Bernard Parish jumped from 6.3 percent to 9.2 percent in one week.

Aside from the percent positivity rate, the city measures other numbers when assessing how it is handling the spread of COVID 19. The seven-day-average number of new cases has also risen from 120 to 154, way above the 50 cases-per-day that the city was experiencing in October when the percent positivity rate was just above 1 percent. Hospital occupancy in Orleans Parish is also up from just under 65 percent to 72.1 percent. The rate of transmission, which measures how many people one person infected with COVID-19 will likely infect has increased from .94 percent to 1.01. Even though this is a slight increase, when the transmission rate is at 1 or higher, it can grow quickly.

A new more contagious mutation of COVID-19 has been detected in Denver, Co., if the new strand arrives in New Orleans, the transmission rate will be an important number to watch.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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