By Roby Chavez
NEW ORLEANS – At Dooky Chase restaurant in the historic Treme neighborhood, you’ll find a marker outside solidifying its place on the Civil Rights Trail, highlighting the Chase family’s work as civil rights pioneers. Inside, you’ll find memorabilia and photos from presidents, popes, and regular people.
These days, you’ll also find large signs notifying a long line of patrons that New Orleans has expanded its vaccine mandate for businesses and restaurants to include anyone 5 and older.
Today is the first day all children in New Orleans are required to be fully vaccinated to enter public places or attend public K-12 public schools. It’s the first major city to implement a school mandate for COVID vaccines, though state regulations will allow parents to opt-out easily. A lawsuit filed late Monday, hours before rules were set to take effect, challenges both the city’s vaccine and mask mandates.
New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said with carnival season already underway, New Orleans is “uniquely vulnerable and at-risk in a way that no other big city is.”
While today about 83 percent of the city’s adults are fully vaccinated, the rate for children has remained low. In early January, with a test positivity rate at nearly 32 percent and Omicron infections soaring, city officials say the mandate was necessary to help increase pediatric vaccination rates in a city where one-fourth of schools, some of which had half-filled classrooms, were forced to close due to infection-related staffing issues. In the state, one in five new cases were in those 18 and younger.
Since the vaccine mandate was announced in mid-December, the percentage of 5 to-17-year-olds fully vaccinated in New Orleans jumped by 15 points to 40.6 percent. At the same time, the city’s overall positive test rate plummeted to 13.5 percent. Statewide, the positive rate remains higher, at about 26 percent.
Now that the policy is fully implemented, Dooky Chase – the inspiration for Princess Tiana, the first Black princess in a Disney movie – finds itself having to possibly turn away little kids costumed as the princess if they don’t have both COVID shots or proof of a negative test.
“We are a family restaurant and we do serve families. We have the little ones coming in dressed as Princess Tiana and we sure don’t want to turn away any Princess Tianas at Ms. Chase’s restaurant. So, we’ve tried our best to let our customers know it’s the new guidelines for COVID,” longtime manager Stella Chase told the PBS NewsHour.
It’s a tough spot for a restaurant that broke the city’s segregation laws by seating both white and Black customers and providing a meeting place for activists in the 1960s. The family says the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. liked barbecued ribs and James Baldwin preferred gumbo.
Inside the white cloth dining room, you’ll also find life-size figures from the Krewe of Zulu, New Orleans’ largest and cherished predominantly African-American carnival organization. Zulu is known for its black-faced krewe members who wear grass skirts and its unique and highly prized hand-painted coconuts that are handed out from atop floats to screaming revelers on Mardi Gras Day.
After nearly two years of restrictions and shutdowns brought on by COVID and historic hurricanes, it’s also a reminder of what’s at stake with the new mandate as carnival season gets underway in the “Big Easy.”
Last year, celebrations were severely curtailed. There were no parades, limited restaurant capacities, and shuttered bars. A normally raucous Bourbon Street and the French Quarter were ominously quiet. Flights to the city all but halted. It was a painful punch to the gut for New Orleans’ $10 billion hospitality industry, according to New Orleans & Company, the destination marketing company contracted by New Orleans city government for ad campaigns.
Still, Stella Chase, the daughter of the late longtime beloved matriarch Leah Chase, who died in 2019, is determined to feed all princesses and tourists alike as one community, just as her 96-year-old mother would have done — with a little bit of magic and a lot of hard work.
“It does slow up our hostess stand and it gets tense at times. We make an effort to greet customers and make them feel welcome. We have not had any complaints so far; including parents with kids,” Chase said. “We haven’t really had a problem with it, but there is still some hesitancy especially at a time when we finally have tourists coming back. We try to help but I’ve had to send tourists away to outlying areas where there is no mandate.”
Avegno is sending a sobering message to revelers planning a trip to let the good times roll.
“If you are unvaccinated or don’t like wearing masks, there is going to be very little for you to do here. Whether it’s going to restaurants, bars or concerts, [or] any higher risk activity, you will be unable to if you are not vaccinated,” Avegno told the NewsHour. “If you’re choosing to not protect yourself and to disregard the safety and health of the workers in the community that you’re coming to, then this is probably not the trip for you to take this year.”“If you are unvaccinated or don’t like wearing masks, there is going to be very little for you to do here.”
The lawsuit was filed came from a group of 100 businesses and residents claiming the mandates are unlawfully excluding them from enjoying activities in New Orleans such as dining in the city’s restaurants, visiting its museums, or taking advantage of paid gym memberships, among other complaints.
“The circus of mandates no longer make sense to any rational person” and “enough is enough,” attorney Laura Rodrigue said in a written statement to NewsHour.
The city would not directly respond to the lawsuit but said the mask and vaccine requirements will remain in place. “The guidelines that we put in place save lives. Full stop. The vaccine mandate and mask requirements are going to remain in place throughout Mardi Gras …The only way we get through this is if we do it safely,” said Beau Tidwell, the city’s communications director.
Restaurants and businesses caught in the middle
For restaurateurs like Conrad Chura, the thought of turning away customers who don’t like mandates is unsettling when “every sale matters every day, and it’s always hard to turn people away,” especially since he’s still only open four days a week.
He’s still trying to find firm footing for his three restaurants, Wakin Bakin, after a tumultuous two years. The French Quarter location only recently opened while his flagship location was closed for five months following Hurricane Ida in August.
“It’s much more strict here than it is in the surrounding area and that’s something that causes us to lose business. Right, wrong, or indifferent; the bottom line, it affects us,” Chura told the NewsHour.
“I feel like I’m a middleman for this policy,” he added. “No one asked me. They said you’ll enforce it or I’ll pull your permit.”
The city has been lenient and understanding while praising the work of restaurants trying to survive the pandemic amid shifting local guidelines. The city’s Office of Code Enforcement has fielded more than 5,000 complaints since Dec. 8 when vaccine mandates started for adults. A spokesperson told the NewsHour there have been more than 250 compliance checks following complaints to the 311 system; less than 10 percent were found to be non-compliant and only issued a warning along with educating business owners of the new guidelines. None have been closed according to a city spokesperson. “No one asked me. They said you’ll enforce it or I’ll pull your permit.”
“We are incredibly grateful for the support of restaurants. I totally recognize it’s a burden. Most have been great about doing it and have not really complained,” Avegno said. “They [restaurants] are most concerned about capacity limits being rolled out again.”
While the new mandates leave a bitter taste on the palate of the city’s 1,500 restaurants, most are willing to make the tradeoff to stay open. They hope to slowly rebuild an industry caught in the middle of a relentless virus – one that thrives on the very thing that makes New Orleans a world-renowned destination.
“It is brutal. You are trying to make ends meet. You are trying to make payroll. It’s difficult when you have to turn a table of eight away because someone is not vaccinated,” Scot Craig, the Greater New Orleans chapter president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, told the NewsHour. “It was difficult. Now, we have settled in and the shock of it has subsided. However, there are still people who won’t come. It is disappointing because we as business owners are paying for decisions that we didn’t make.”
Scrambling to survive losses and shortages
The omicron surge makes survival in an already low-profit margin industry that much more difficult. Restaurant owners not only have mandates to deal with; they are also scrambling to get both employees and supplies while trying to find a model that works.
For Craig, who also owns the popular neighborhood spot Katie’s Restaurant in New Orleans, business is different these days but his experience has been that customers are understanding.
“We’ve had to pay a lot of overtime to fill staff. The prices of products have gone way up. We’ve had to raise our prices slightly, and we’ve definitely raised salaries,” Craig said. “If you were in a fragile position, this was always going to be tough to withstand. I think restaurants that ran a tight ship and were prepared for a disaster of some sort came out okay, but we lost quite a few businesses.
In fact, the Louisiana Restaurant Association estimates that 1 in 4 restaurants statewide closed since the pandemic began. Countless others have had to repurpose and rethink how they do business. And the journey is not over.
“It’s been really difficult for restaurateurs. I know a lot of people who are closed on Monday and Tuesday and cutting their hours,” Craig said. “The employee situation is difficult; some have struggled mightily with employees.”
At Wakin Bakin, Chura said he has forgone his own salary and deferred the mortgage on his family home to pay employees. Chura went from 45 employees to four at one point but is now back to 15 workers. It’s meant streamlining the work and meeting the demand for wage increases. Even the menu has been consolidated, cutting out food that costs more or is hard to procure like chorizo, chicken, ham, and peppers. He’s barely breaking even.
“We are currently only open four days a week. I am looking for a minimum of three months of data saying the sales have come back and we can meet or beat pre-pandemic levels to tell me it’s safe to open up more and increase the cost of operations. We are not there yet.”
Meanwhile, at Dooky Chase, which is still not fully staffed, the family is not resting on its legacy. “When one restaurant goes down, it hurts us all. It’s not about competition. It’s about all of us staying open. It’s about all of us thriving,” said Stella Chase, who added that the possibility of closing was never an option.
“It has been tough. We worried about the business and the legacy that comes with it. I always tell people, ‘not on my watch,’” Chase said. “The sad part is that customers have to pay for it. When we have to juggle staff or are short of staff, our customers don’t get the quality service they like to get.”
When the 19 million record visitors who visited the city in 2019 stopped coming to New Orleans; the community sustained itself by supporting local businesses, Chase said.
Ironically, one of her mother’s last wishes was to build the “take-out business” of the restaurant. The late Leah Chase always believed the future of New Orleans and its restaurants has always been in the hands of a united community.
“The pandemic has made things change and we realize what my mother used to say, ‘you got to revitalize that takeout.’ I heard those words and she got her wish,” Chase laughed.
It’s always been the way in New Orleans, she said — “everyone had to come to the cause. Everyone took on more,” Chase said, proudly reciting her grandparents’ family motto.
“They never backed down from a challenge – and they had many, many challenges. It was their faith that got them over the challenge [but] they’d say, don’t forget the hard work because prayers without work are useless.”
As for the future, Avegno says New Orleans will always have to be a little more protective even for a city sometimes known as “The City that Care Forgot.” “I do hope it’s not our future forever. However, when time demands it and the science shows it, I do think we have to be willing to go back into some level of mitigation. And when we’re able to come out of it, we can be like everyone else. That’s New Orleans. We’re not like everyone else and we won’t act like everyone else.”