- The Washington Times
Sunday, May 17, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — The retail world is starting to peer out of its coronavirus shell and get back to business.

“You have no idea how good this feels,” said Keith Young, owner of the eponymous steakhouse in Madisonville outside New Orleans. “This is the best therapy. People haven’t been out, and they want to dine. You could see how ecstatic they were. This is the best people have felt in eight weeks.”

For the first time in 54 days, restaurants in New Orleans and its suburbs were allowed to open Friday for sit-down dining, though capacity was limited to 25%.

Across the country, similar scenes played out as governors eased restrictions. The shutdowns were intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus but ushered in a retail apocalypse that forced into bankruptcy major players such as Gold’s Gym, gourmet foods retailer Dean & DeLuca, clothier J.Crew and department stores J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus.

Restaurants, which typically operate on slim profit margins, took massive blows. About 20% of all bars and restaurants in the U.S. are not expected to survive, according to a USB market analysis.

In hard-hit Louisiana, which had the nation’s fifth-highest per capita fatality rate from COVID-19, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, began lifting restrictions statewide Friday.

Restaurants, theaters and casinos now are allowed to entertain at 25% capacity and with social distancing rules that essentially limit them to one customer per 60 square feet.

The uptown and downtown pillars of New Orleans’ legendary cuisine — Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s, respectively — remained closed Friday. A spokeswoman at Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street said the restaurant would reopen Wednesday, and a statement on the Commander’s Palace website says it is “not quite ready.”

“You are in our hearts,” Commander’s Palace declares. “We’ll get the band back together soon.”

For Alice Day, Cece Fagan and Paula Bann, the band’s reunion could wait no longer. The lunch pals gathered Friday at the Italian Pie, a popular lunch spot with independently owned locations scattered across the New Orleans area.

“We came in today for takeout, and she said, ‘We’ve got tables!’” Ms. Day related excitedly. “We’re still a little apprehensive, but it’s been a long time — two months.”

Ms. Day then declared she “wanted to go to J.C. Penney.” Ms. Fagan told her friend she had better do so quickly.

So far, 48 states have begun to reopen or announced plans to reopen. Connecticut and Massachusetts are the two holdouts.

Shutdown orders on restaurants and bars, where social distancing is particularly challenging, are among the slowest to lift.

The Big Easy’s restaurants are coping with the occupancy limits in different ways.

At Keith Young’s, staff simply removed 75% of the seating.

Italian Pie owner Edy Carrington put chairs up at most tables.

“I don’t know the best solution,” said Ms. Carrington. “We know our seating capacity is 100 people, so we just got out the tape measure.”

“We’ve been bleaching the floor every night because we’ve still had people come in and out on a daily basis,” she said.

The restaurant offered takeout and curbside pickup during the lockdown, she said, “but dine-in lunch is a big part of our business.”

Mr. Young estimated that his restaurant’s takeout menu brought in 30% to 35% of his normal business. With the reopening, the restaurant has told diners they must arrive on time, together, and have 90 minutes to finish their meals.

“We never want to rush any customer,” he said. “But when you are serving only 25% of your capacity, you can’t afford to have tables going through two turns of service.”

The staffing situation remains fluid. The National Restaurant Association estimates that tourist-heavy Louisiana had a restaurant and food service workforce of 213,400. In Lafayette, where about two-thirds of the city’s restaurant workers have been furloughed, the head of the local restaurant association said in late April that widespread concern about generous unemployment benefits would make it less likely that workers would return quickly.

Ms. Carrington said her family-owned joint had its same small staff, and Mr. Young said he retained all of his kitchen staff because of demand.

It seems unlikely that rosy picture will remain. Mr. Edwards said the state will likely reassess and possibly announce further easings on June 1.

“I think when this is all over it will be a very different landscape,” Mr. Young said.

During the reopening Friday, however, that gloomy future was not on the menu.

“This is my favorite place,” Ms. Fagan said. “I’m so tired of staring at the walls.”

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.