New Orleans businesses make the case to reopen amid coronavirus: ‘People need to get back to work’

New Orleans area business leaders set out plans to re-open the economy in a report Tuesday, part of a growing clamor from the business community to begin loosening the clamp-down on public activities amid signs that the pace of coronavirus cases is slowing.

The report by economic development agency GNO Inc., with input from leaders in 10 regional business sectors over the last two weeks, makes the case for restarting businesses, especially for the hardest-hit sectors like retail, restaurants, and entertainment venues. It also aims to provide a clear set of health and safety protocols for how business segments should operate in “the new normal,” while mitigation efforts like social distancing and wearing protective gear are still in place to limit the pandemic.

The GNO report reflects the wider discussion, both at the local and national level, about what should be the balance between combating the pandemic and ensuring the damage to the economy doesn’t become unmanageable.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 15 but also talked about some loosening measures, such as allowing retail stores to join restaurants in offering a curbside service. On Tuesday, he responded to comments made by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell suggesting next year’s Mardi Gras might be in jeopardy because of the pandemic, saying it was premature to talk even about how this year’s events might unfold.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., said that while health care considerations are paramount, it’s time to start focusing on limiting damage to the economy.

“There is a general sense of urgency, from small businesses to large, to get the wheels of the economy moving again,” he said. “Slowly re-opening the economy has practical implications like jobs, but also psychological implications because it gives people hope that we’re trying to move back to some new normal.”

Moving too slowly to resuscitate the economy could prolong the recovery, which could lead to other health concerns that stem from joblessness and poverty, Hecht argues.

The report suggests that for the retail sector, for example, the first phase of re-opening would continue measures deployed by essential retailers, such as grocery stores, including limiting customer numbers in stores and having special hours for vulnerable patrons, having staff wear masks and gloves, etc. It could also accelerate industry trends that preceded the pandemic, like cashier-less checkouts and curbside service.

Erin Graham, marketing director of the Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie, said the retailers there are ready to jump on any opportunity to re-start business, which have been shut since March 18 except for a few restaurants that have offered curbside service.

“We received word last night from the governor that (non-food retailers) can do curbside at the main mall,” she said. “We’re waiting to hear back from the merchants as to who can participate so we can create a full plan, but people want to jump on it as soon as possible.”

The mall has nearly 1.2 million square feet of space and hosts big department stores, including Macy’s and Dillards, but also many “mom and pop” stores among its 140 tenants, Graham said.

The protocols check-list for restaurants would includes spacing tables, PPE for wait staff, and instituting new procedures for stocking, so that at-hand drink and food are kept to a minimum to reduce instances of human contact. There will be no more cut-up lemons or open straws at drinks stations.

New Orleans & Co., the city’s tourism and leisure agency, is readying its own report with even more detailed procedures for the hospitality sub-sectors.

“We are working with small groups focused on re-opening plans for hotels, restaurants, cultural attractions and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as we approach the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/White House) guidelines for qualifying for Phase I,” said Kristian Sonnier, spokesman for New Orleans & Co., whose report is expected out later this week.

The report has protocols for other sectors, including construction, maritime, and manufacturing.

Jennifer McMillan, head of talent strategy at Laitram and responsible for HR at subsidiary Intralox, a Harahan-headquartered maker of conveyor belts, said the company has formed a “return to work committee” that is working on getting remote workers back to the company’s campus.

Like many manufacturing firms in the region, the company has continued working even during the shut-down and has implemented typical safety protocols. “We provided PPE for our manufacturing workforce and we have implemented social distancing, strict hygiene and self reporting protocols,” McMillan said. “We will continue to implement these protocols and processes which we have refined over the past few weeks.”

The efforts by local business interests echo those of the White House, which on Monday published a more detailed version of the re-opening guidelines first put out two weeks ago. They include suggestions for employers such as closing break rooms, and for restaurants to use disposable menus and plates.

Transocean Development CEO Gregory Rusovich, a former chairman of GNO and New Orleans & Co. who helped frame the new report, said the message from the business community is that it is “chomping at the bit.”

“We’re not in conflict with the government’s plan,” Rusovich said. “That being said, if there were delays by any government official or rules put in place by a political leader at any parish level that did not adhere to the CDC guidelines without a very viable reason, we’d have a serious problem with that. People need to get back to work.”

In a sign of the damage the coronavirus has wreaked over the last six weeks, Hancock Whitney Bank on Tuesday reported a $111 million loss for the first quarter, including $247 million credit losses related to the pandemic and the oil price crash.

Whitney CEO John Hairston said the crisis, as bad as it is, probably would prove to be manageable if the economy starts to re-open in May and into June. He said that bank regulators have given banks a lot of leeway to help businesses and individuals in the early part of the crisis, but have signaled that they will take a tougher stance in six months or so to avert a debt crisis.

“The longer it takes to get back to normal the closer it gets to the time when banks are forced into taking a tougher posture,” he said.

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