NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - As COVID-19 cases across New Orleans continue to rise, the city’s 311 helpline to report non-compliant businesses, is slammed. Hundreds of calls come in each day, with about a dozen people to look into the claims.
City workers are in a race against time to help flatten the curve while business owners say, they’re doing the best they can.
You have probably seen scenes like this across the country, from the massive pool party in the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend to a large house party busted in Los Angeles this week. People and businesses are violating COVID-19 restrictions across the country.
Here at home, we have seen a packed Bourbon Street and people milling about in the French Quarter without masks. Willie’s Chicken Shack was shut down for allegedly committing multiple violations. New Orleans’ 311 task force leaders say they spend day and night responding to calls, trying to get businesses to comply with COVID-19 regulations.
The head of the city’s department of code enforcement, Winston Reid, says, “We do the whole city, every day.”
The city alleges Willie’s Chicken Shack was selling to go drinks when they were prohibited. Taking a look at the 311 complaint log, restaurants make up a bulk of the businesses being investigated in New Orleans. Here is an example.
On June 19, someone identifying themselves as an employee lodged a complaint against the Blue Crab restaurant along New Orleans lakefront. City records show the person said they were scared to go to work after another employee tested positive and that management was being tight-lipped about the situation.
The Blue Crab’s owner says legally, he couldn’t release the name of the sick employee and he spent thousands to ensure others were safe.
“I sent every one of our employees to be tested just about $7,000 it cost me to do that. We have Terminix come in and take care of the building. We followed every protocol, employees come to work, they have their temperatures checked, if anyone shows any symptoms, runny nose, anything, we send them home,” Nick Asprodites said.
The employee also complained about the number of people allowed to eat and listen to live music in an outdoor area, on the first floor of the restaurant. Another complaint from a nearby resident lodged a month later said the same thing. But Asprodites contends he’s following all of the rules set forth by the city.
“They come constantly, the health department comes out, code enforcement comes out, we’ve had the levee board police along with the city and the EMT come out and check us, each time they come through the building, I show them what we’re doing, what our procedures are, and they have not had a problem one time,” Asprodites explained.
The Country Club in the Bywater also received complaints. A photo taken June 20 shows people outside in the pool area of the business.
A person who says they’re an employee of The Country Club and did not want to be identified for fear of retribution said, “They didn’t enforce any mask-wearing when people were away from the tables or in the pool, they didn’t enforce any social distancing so employees were forced to work around patrons, especially on busy days, who were going around without any sort of masks or safety precautions for employees.”
That person tells FOX 8 they called 311. Other employees allegedly did too, alarmed at the crowded pool scene. But they claim no one from the city ever showed up.
“I and a couple other people have tried to retroactively inform 311 of practices at The Country Club but we were told they couldn’t do anything retroactively, it had to be in the moment,” the person said.
We spoke with the general manager of The Country Club who contends the business took every precaution to keep both employees and patrons, safe.
“When we reopened there was not a mandated mask order, they were recommended and we required people to wear masks when they entered and exited the property, but it’s impossible to have somebody wear the mask when they’re eating or drinking. It wasn’t required that people have a mask while exercising or while in an outdoor space,” Bert McComas said.
McComas says after that pool party June 20 and the complaints that followed, The Country Club scaled back on capacity, and eventually, shut it’s doors entirely, out of an abundance of caution.
He says, “It’s safer to be closed.”
The city’s 311 task force has had to forcibly shut down some businesses that chose not to comply with mandates.
Reid says, “Our objective is not to shut down any business, our objective is to provide clear education, lots of education relative to the Covid guidelines that the Governor and the city has put forth.”
Reid says the undertaking to investigate all of the businesses they receive complaints about, is daunting. There are 13 task force members Monday through Thursday, more join on the weekends. But hundreds of calls come in daily and all those calls need to be investigated, first through a phone call and then, an in person visit.
“I mean think about it if you’ve got a thousand complaints coming in, imagine what level of boots on the ground you would need to touch that off through the course of a week,” Reid said.
The task force shows up at restaurants, retail stores and bars to investigate. Even large house parties.
He explains, “So if you think late at night you just want to be out there and have a large social gathering event or maybe party and some of the bars, maybe 12, one, two, three in the morning and you think nobody is out there, we’re always out there.”
When you think about the time and resources it takes to look into every single complaint, that’s just one of the reasons why Reid and other city leaders are imploring people, specifically business owners and their patrons, to follow the rules, to help the task force try to control the Covid-19 situation in New Orleans and flatten the curve.
The Country Club says the city’s 311 task force found no violations on site. The business owners we spoke to say they’re in a tricky spot, trying to stay afloat financially, while constantly navigating ever-changing restrictions.
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