NEW ORLEANS – (AP) – There is a bar and restaurant in the neighborhood, but on two extended weekends each year, the “regulars” at Liuzza’s by the Track include a crowded crowd of tourists grabbing drinks and chilling out Way to go in and out to eat settle down at the nearby New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Co-owner James Gonczi estimates that during the seven-day festival each spring, 30 to 35% of his clientele will be out-of-town visitors. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the festival has not taken place for two years.
It looked like the music was going to play this fall – organizers recruited the Rolling Stones to headline a festival that was postponed to October. But then the highly contagious Delta variant exploded and forced another cancellation.
Gonczi doesn’t even want to talk about it. “I don’t want to be depressed anymore,” he says.
The Jazz Fest usually draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to the city. They come every year for the unique food, music, and culture, and play a vital role in a tourism and hospitality industry that powers New Orleans’ economy.
This industry has been hit by the pandemic that has forced many bars, restaurants and music venues to close or restrict their operations. At one point the city unemployment was up to 20% and it has not recovered, with the unemployment rate now at 12%.
It seemed like decent times would come again at least last spring when the vaccinations started and the visitors came back. The occupancy of downtown hotels has risen to over 50% this summer, not bad compared to the single-digit numbers of the previous summer, said Kelly Schultz, a spokeswoman for New Orleans & Company, which promotes the city as a tourist destination. But she said it was not a full recovery as international tourists, cruise passengers, and business travelers have not returned yet.
The tourism organization paused some of its advertising until September, as surveys found travelers were concerned about the rise in the delta. Louisiana was a hotspot for this fourth wave, with hospital admissions repeatedly reaching record highs and medical staff voicing concerns that hospitals could be overrun.
The renewed loss of the Jazz Fest should be a “huge wake-up call” to get more people vaccinated, said Schultz: “All of this is completely preventable with the vaccine.”
Earlier this month, New Orleans required anyone entering bars, restaurants, music clubs, and even the Superdome, to have proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test. Both the city and the state require masks to be worn in shops and other indoor spaces as well, but have not returned to the closings or capacity limits for live music, restaurants and bars that were introduced at the start of the pandemic.
Many companies also take their own precautions. When the infections rose again, the Carnaval Lounge reinstalled clear shields separating the stage from the crowd. Even so, some bands have canceled due to concerns about rising infections, said owner Jennifer Johnson.
Live music events were one of the last things to open freely last spring, and venue operators fear they will be the first to face restrictions if hospital admissions continue to rise.
“I just can’t say enough how devastating it would be if the live music had to be stopped,” said Johnson.
Even before the mayor’s announcement, dozens of venues decided to prescribe vaccines or negative coronavirus tests. Carnaval is one of them, as is Palm & Pine, a restaurant in the French Quarter that combines Southern, Caribbean, and Central American influences. Palm & Pine took the step because its employees have children and they noticed how many children got sick during this fourth surge.
While the Jazz Fest is by far the biggest event to be canceled, August was bleak. An event that attracted art lovers wearing white to check out galleries has been canceled, as has the Red Dress Run, which sends thousands of night owls through town. Next, the September French Quarter Festival was canceled, when dozens of artists played outdoors. Now many fear that the pre-fasting parades and street parties of Mardi Gras, which attract tourists from all over the world, will be closed again in 2022.
Losing the Jazz Fest means Linda Green – often referred to as the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady for her signature noodle dish known as a hangover cure – has no more than two dozen people working on two of the festival’s booths.
She hasn’t hosted a major catering event since Mardi Gras 2020. She found other ways to make ends meet, including pop-ups at a local music venue. But to lose the Jazz Fest is devastating.
“I do all the festivals in town,” she said. “I can’t do any right now. It hurts.”
Many still hope that this recent surge won’t get any worse and that the tourist season this fall can be saved. New Orleans has a higher vaccination rate than the rest of Louisiana and neighboring states, which could be important as tourists decide where to spend their vacation pay.
At the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter, business growth that had returned in mid-March is flattening out. Many guests wanting to come to Jazz Fest have canceled and new reservations have slowed down a bit, said Al Groos, the hotel’s manager. If they can survive that spike, they could still have a “very, very good drop,” he said hopefully. “Not based on 2019 standards, but based on 2020,” he added.
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