GRETNA, La. (AP) — Louisiana restaurants of all kinds added outdoor tables 10 feet apart Friday in a tiny step toward normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and patrons were delighted.
“I feel like I just got out of jail!” accountant Joy Palermo exclaimed as she sat down with a bacon-garnished bloody Mary while her lunch was prepared at the Gretna Depot Cafe outside New Orleans.
Restaurants statewide have been allowed to offer only takeout and delivery food since March 21 under an order by Gov. John Bel Edwards. But starting Friday, patrons can carry their take-out containers to tables outside, without waiter service.
Palermo wasn’t the only one to feel released. Staying home all the time gets to feel like being in prison, said Viola Bright, a retired nurse. She and retired Plaquemines Parish government worker Lucinda Venezia were at one of 13 umbrella-shaded picnic tables in a blocked-off parking lot across the street from Gattuso’s Restaurant, also in Gretna.
About half the 13 tables were taken in the parking lot, where games of cornhole and four-in-a-row were available.
Just outside the restaurant, every one of eight four-seat tables and two sets of two such tables was occupied. Kent and Doris Alimia (uh-LEE-muh) and their college-student daughters, Molly and Emily, were celebrating Molly Alimia’s 22nd birthday at one of the tables, which were screened to about 5 feet high by plants in wooden planters..
“It’s a nice change of scenery to actually get out of the house,” Molly Alimia said.
At another table, Rose Marie Hymel of Gretna said, “I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in two months.”
New Orleans is not participating in the governor’s tweaks to business restrictions, which also include letting mall retailers offer curbside service. Bucking the Democratic governor’s order, at least one parish has said restaurants may start indoor dining at 25% of their capacity.
In Mandeville, north of New Orleans, manager Mandy Perrilloux had planned to move a few tables out of Trey Yuen’s dining room to areas near the Chinese restaurant’s koi pond on one side and its waterfall garden on the other — but they turned out to be too heavy. “We’re still working on it,” she said Friday.
Edwards’ announcement Monday was exciting, said Jenna Kramer, owner of In-Laws Cajun Specialties — a meat market and small restaurant a short walk from a truck stop in the southwestern town of Iowa (pronounced EYE-oh-way).
“It’ll definitely give truck drivers a place to sit. They don’t have to get their food and sit in their trucks,” she said Wednesday. She said Friday that about 30 people had used the half-dozen two-seat porch tables since opening, and business seemed a bit brisker than usual for Friday, usually their busiest day.
Edwards said Monday that he’d hoped for a wider reopening but rising numbers of cases in northeast Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area and Acadiana prevented it.
Hours later, Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans — one of the state’s COVID-19 hotspots with nearly 6,500 of the state’s 28,000 cases and 434 of the 1,862 deaths — said the city won’t participate.
Chef Stephen Stryjewski, who illustrated likely social distancing requirements between those two announcements Monday by stretching his arms between two outdoor tables at Cochon Butcher sandwich shop, said he fully supports both the governor and mayor.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us and I was caught daydreaming about a better tomorrow,” Stryjewski wrote in an emailed statement.
Although Cafe du Monde seated up to 250 outdoors for chicory coffee and the square fried pastries called beignets at its French Quarter cafe before the epidemic, the streets and sidewalks are so empty that it’s not even open for walk-up service, co-owner Jay Roman said. He said the family-owned company reopened two suburban stores as drive-thrus, which are “not as conducive” to tables as walk-up service, and its airport cafe remains open.
Officials in East Feliciana Parish, outside Baton Rouge, said Thursday that restaurants and other businesses could open at 25% of capacity. In LaSalle Parish, restaurants decided against participating in a similar expansion on advice from the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
Edwards has said the state Department of Health and the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which have power to revoke permits, will enforce his order. He said he hopes any businesses not complying will get back in line.