The New Orleans City Council on Thursday voted to legalize outdoor entertainment, indefinitely extending a pandemic-era business model that has kept entertainment venues and musicians afloat during the emergency COVID-19 lockdowns but after the easing of those restrictions has met with fierce resistance.
The unanimous vote followed negotiations to resolve seemingly irreconcilable differences between live music advocates and neighborhood groups along the Mississippi River. The motion forms the basis of a proposed regulation to be voted on at a future meeting.
“We’ve been working for quite some time to figure out how to make this permanent,” Councilor Helena Moreno said, adding that the new measures “will offer predictability, not just for the venues and musicians, but for the people who do it.” live in these areas.”
Opponents, at a public meeting in June, insisted that City Hall must replace its notoriously unenforceable noise ordinance before considering outdoor entertainment, which includes music, comedy, theater and other types of performance. They said they didn’t trust Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to enforce the existing rules, let alone new ones.
Proponents hoped to avoid a lengthy debate over the robust regulation, which has been the center of bitter, drawn-out political wrangling over failed reform efforts in recent years. Cementing legal status for outdoor stages is urgent, they said, because Cantrell’s Emergency Pandemic Ordinance allowing them could disappear at any time.
The fact that an agreement was finally reached shows “that these problems can be solved,” said Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans.
“These aren’t really entrenched problems,” he said.
Although no new robust regulation appears to be on the horizon, neighborhood leaders have been impacted by a number of developments over the past two months. Among them is the Cantrell government’s pledge to hire new zone inspectors for night work, although the details of those plans are still being worked out.
Allen Johnson, president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, said he had renewed “trust in the council and also trust in the administration” following recent meetings with Moreno’s chief of staff Andrew Tuozzolo and zoning chief Ashley Becnel. District C Councilor Freddie King III’s staff.
“It’s very compelling that they all somehow learned from the short-term rental mistake,” said Johnson, one of the most vocal critics of the government’s failure to enforce short-term rental laws and a leading opponent of the outdoor entertainment measures.
The new measures will replace temporary permits issued by the Cantrell administration under the mayor’s emergency COVID-19 orders, but the issue first surfaced just before the pandemic hit. Live music advocates discovered in late 2019 that city officials were interpreting a quirk in the zone code to ban outdoor stages, sparking a frenzied push to change the code.
Then came the COVID-19 lockdown, which threatened to suffocate New Orleans’ famed music scene. Cantrell’s emergency permits offered some relief to venue operators and performers, but proponents continued to push for permanent regulations to sustain what had become an expanded business model for some operators.
Planning commission staff have tabled a number of proposals, but commissioners have struggled to grasp the finer details of the mishmash of new rules and failed to garner enough votes to take a position on June 3.
In meetings over the next two months, City Council staff added streamlined “conditional use” rules tailored to each venue and individually approved by City Council. Venues located more than 600 feet from residential areas — which is rare — would not need to undergo the conditional use process.
Also added restrictions on the frequency and hours that venues can host outdoor stages. Generally, venues are limited to three outdoor performances per seven-day period, and performances must be completed by 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. These rules could become more restrictive or looser through the conditional use process.
The new zoning laws are for bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues; They do not affect second-line parades, street musicians, or performances on private property.
Demand for the new permits is difficult to pinpoint, but Ellestad estimates a few dozen venue operators may be interested. The rules adopted for each venue will be accessible on an online dashboard.
CORRECTION: Previous versions of this article said the council legalized outdoor entertainment on Thursday.