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New Orleans tourism takes yet another hit from Hurricane Ida

The French Quarter of New Orleans, blacked out after Hurricane Ida downed power lines throughout the area, on August 30, 2021. The city's industry has been battered by the pandemic and was looking forward to a big Labor Day weekend. Ida has washed those hopes away.
The French Quarter of New Orleans, blacked out after Hurricane Ida downed power lines throughout the area, on August 30, 2021. The city's industry has been battered by the pandemic and was looking forward to a big Labor Day weekend. Ida has washed those hopes away.Edmund D. Fountain/NYT

Before Hurricane Ida struck on Aug. 29, Labor Day weekend seemed poised to offer New Orleans the tourist bonanza that many businesses had been craving.

“This delta variant kind of erased our August,” said Suzanne Becker, the general manager of the Henry Howard Hotel, a boutique hotel in the Lower Garden District. But for the first time in weeks, guests were slated to fill nearly every room. Many other hotels were fully booked at the higher room rates only holiday weekends allow.

“It was going to be huge for us,” Becker said.

When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival canceled the October event a few weeks ago, citing concerns about an increase in coronavirus cases, it wiped many reservations off the books. But hotels still had Labor Day to look forward to.

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“Everyone loves Labor Day in New Orleans,” said Robert LeBlanc, the owner of the Chloe, another boutique hotel in the Garden District. Not only was his hotel fully booked, but he had more large party restaurant reservations than he’d had since late July, when delta took hold.

Come Friday night the French Quarter would be brimming with tens of thousands of visitors who’d come for Southern Decadence, or “gay Mardi Gras,” as many refer to it.

Beaux Church, the manager of three gay bars in the French Quarter, put twice as many bartenders on the schedule as he normally would. Even with that staffing, he was certain they’d go home flush with tips.

“It would have been the weekend that helped them catch up from everything they lost during COVID,” Church said. “It would help them get their rent caught up and get those extra credit cards paid off.”

But after Ida howled into Louisiana on Sunday, lashing coastal communities and knocking out power in New Orleans — before moving on to the Northeast, where its remnants wreaked still more havoc — Church’s bartenders evacuated to other cities. The Henry Howard Hotel, along with hundreds of other hotels, stands empty. Southern Decadence is off once again. Even Cafe Lafitte in Exile, a gay bar that prides itself on staying open 24 hours a day — even during Hurricane Katrina — has been forced to shutter because of its inability to turn on the lights, air conditioning or margarita machine.

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As many in the city remain without power and surrounding towns are still assessing the damage, New Orleans’ tourism industry, a main driver of the city’s economy, is once again taking stock.

“What COVID didn’t do, Ida took care of,” said Tony Leggio, one of the organizers of Southern Decadence, as he evacuated his home in scorching heat Tuesday.

A ‘do-over’ weekend

The possibility that Ida is the event that will finally push visitors over the edge, keeping them away long-term, is what has some in the hospitality sector scared. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the number of tourists in the city plummeted more than 60%. It wasn’t until 2010 that the number of visitors reached pre-Katrina numbers again.

“We want people to understand this was not a Hurricane Katrina event for New Orleans,” said Kelly Schulz, a spokesperson for New Orleans & Company, the official marketing organization for the New Orleans tourism industry. Because businesses and homes in the city did not take on water — as some lamentably did in other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi — the tourist infrastructure was generally undamaged, and she said she hoped that tourists would return as soon as the power is back on.

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Given that intensive care units in the city have been overflowing with young COVID patients and only 40% of people are fully vaccinated in Louisiana, some might argue that the city is better off without an influx of crowds. Public health researchers have blamed Mardi Gras in February 2020 for creating one of the most explosive outbreaks of coronavirus in the world.

But restaurant owners, hotel managers and event planners say given that the city now requires proof of vaccination or a recent coronavirus test along with masks to enter most businesses, they could have handled the visitors, had the storm given them the opportunity.

Visitors seemed to appreciate the rules because they gave them a way to move forward with events in a way that felt safe, said Amanda Price, an event planner based in New Orleans. Labor Day weekend, which falls right in the middle of the most active part of the hurricane season, has not traditionally been a popular time for weddings in New Orleans.

“Most of the time people aren’t rushing to get married during hurricanes,” she said. But this year, many seemed determined to use the weekend to pull off weddings that had been canceled by concerns about the coronavirus and rules banning large gatherings that were in place for much of the pandemic. “It has been incredibly busy,” she said.

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Cayla Contardi, who lives in Austin, Texas, is one of Price’s clients who was hoping for a do-over. Saturday, Sept. 4, was her third wedding date. Originally she was supposed to get married in Tucson, Arizona, on June 20, 2020.

All of her guests already had recovered from COVID or are fully vaccinated, she said, so she felt that they could safely execute what was supposed to be a 120-person event in a ballroom in the French Quarter.

On Saturday afternoon, Contardi was devastated to learn that her husband’s family, who live in New Orleans and in St. Tammany Parish about 50 miles north of the city, were fleeing their homes.

Still, even after the hotel called her Monday to tell her that her guests could no longer stay there because it was badly damaged, she admits that she struggled to accept that her wedding was off.

“I have a beautiful dress that I’ve had for three years,” she said. She won’t plan a wedding a fourth time.

Food headed to the trash

Long before COVID, Labor Day had been a good weekend for restaurants in New Orleans, according to Nina Compton, the chef behind the restaurants Compère Lapin in the Warehouse Arts District and Bywater American Bistro in the Bywater neighborhood.

“Normally a lot of people come to town for a big hurrah before school starts,” she said. This year she was anticipating a busy week. As soon as she saw the storm coming she accepted that was no longer the case. What’s been harder to stomach, she said, is that even as people across the state are struggling, restaurants have had to throw away so much good food.

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“You can’t donate food to many people because they don’t have the power to cook,” she said, as she finished cleaning out the walk-in fridge at Compère Lapin. She’d found someone who wanted the produce, but milk and fresh pasta were headed for the trash.

James Doucette, the general manager of Meals From The Heart Cafe, which maintains a counter in the French Quarter’s open-air market, also lamented all the waste.

“This storm is yet another obstacle we must face,” he wrote in an email, adding that his team is currently displaced.

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It’s not just the loss of weekend tourists that will devastate the restaurant industry, said Alon Shaya, the founder of Pomegranate Hospitality, which manages two restaurants. It’s the fact that the storm will also keep longer term visitors away. Students had just returned to Tulane University, which was helpful to his restaurant, Saba, about a mile away. Now the university is postponing classes for at least another month.

This sense of whiplash is not new to New Orleans’ hospitality industry. Early in the pandemic business was so bad that nearly half of the city’s restaurants and one-third of its hotels closed indefinitely. Then, as more people got vaccinated and decided to return to New Orleans, optimism soared. At some point in the spring, business for Church, who manages a diner as well as the three French Quarter gay bars, actually surpassed its 2018 all-time high.

Then delta showed up and Bourbon Street died, he said, noting that a few weeks ago, practically overnight, his bars went from making around $10,000 a night to $1,000. He believes that tourists stopped coming in once his staff got strict about rules requiring proof of vaccination and masks, requirements he supports.

He was looking forward to all the visitors this weekend because the Southern Decadence festival had been so clear about communicating requirements.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Edgar Chase IV, who is known as Dooky and runs two Dooky Chase restaurants, one outside the security gate at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and one in the Treme neighborhood. It should have been a big weekend for his team. Instead they’ve all had to evacuate.

In these moments, it’s not money that concerns him, he said. It’s “how can we get people some type of comfort?” In his mind that should be the real focus of the hospitality industry now.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.