I stood shoulder to shoulder six weeks ago (feels like six months ago) with some of the 1.4 million visitors that had descended upon New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Little did any of us know then that the Coronavirus was lurking among us.
We knew the pandemic was raging in China; that Italy and other countries had cancelled their carnival celebrations, but there were no cases in New Orleans and we felt safe with reassurances from our government and from the city’s top health official that “the flu is far more dangerous right now than the coronavirus.”
“Passing a Good Time” (and the Virus) For Seven Weeks
The carnival season began in New Orleans on January 6 with four parades in the French Quarter, then 42 more in the subsequent seven weeks (in addition to those in nearby parishes), culminating on Mardi Gras Day, February 25.
For nearly two months, people in New Orleans had been “passing a good time”–along with the virus–partaking in the communal gumbo and sharing king cake as they gathered cheek to cheek to party in tight spaces–hugging, dancing, feasting together. Unbeknownst to all, Mardi Gras had brought us an undesired “lagniappe” (lan-yap), the local expression for a little bonus, like an extra donut when you buy a dozen.
Behind a Veil of Normalcy
The streets were clean and quiet the day after Fat Tuesday when the President assured Americans that everything was going to be fine. He announced that the number of cases was very low and that “…within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
Two days later, after the tourists had all returned to their various home states and countries, the President reassured us again, saying “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” On that same day he tweeted, about the “fake news media” and his political opponents, that “This is their new hoax.” For the next six days, I sat in a crowded movie theater at the New Orleans French Film Festival. People sneezed and coughed, but nobody, including me, thought much about it.
At the time, I felt it was safer here in The Big Easy than in New York or Los Angeles, the densely populated cities where I used to live. But thirteen days later, when New Orleans reported its first case of Covid-19, it dawned on many of us that Mardi Gras might have made us vulnerable. Still, on that day, the President again tweeted that the media and his opponents were inflaming the “CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.” Then five days later, New Orleans reported its first death.
“Simple it’s not, I am afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”–Dr. Seuss
“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” the President told reporters on March 17, just days after he’d said, “Just stay calm. It will go away.”
Ironically, on April Fools Day, the President admitted that he knew from the start that the Coronavirus was a pandemic but downplayed the threat, telling people it was going to “disappear” because he didn’t want to be negative and deliver bad news.
When asked if he knew the virus was going to be this severe even when he saying it was under control, the President responded, “Basically, yes. I thought it could be. I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good.” Then he added, “I want to give people a feeling of hope. I could be very negative. I could say ‘wait a minute, those numbers are terrible. This is going to be horrible,’” he said. “Well, this is really easy to be negative about, but I want to give people hope, too. You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”
Like the popular legend and expression, “the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” was our President fiddling around while the virus burned through this country?
The Day the Music Died
As of this posting–and the numbers will be higher when you read this–Louisiana has reported more than 702 deaths, 224 of them in New Orleans. With one of the highest per-capita death rates in the country, the “Paris of the South” has become a hotspot, but this time not as the place to laissez les bons temps rouler (“let the good times roll.”) There are no second line parades in New Orleans right now, the traditional jazz funerals where crowds join mourners to dance and shake handkerchiefs as they march down the city streets behind a full brass band.
Locked Out During Katrina, Locked Down During Coronavirus
I wasn’t here during Katrina, but I know people who were and I’ve heard their personal stories. Some have described that time as surreal and it certainly feels like that now.
Did Katrina Teach Us Anything?
Living through this pandemic is very different from what it was like during and after Katrina––that was devastation on an unimaginable scale––but there are similarities between that storm and this one. People are asking if they will have a job and what will happen to the local economy if the tourists can’t come here. We’re all wondering if friends and family are safe, hoping they will be. Both storms originated from Mother Nature, both becoming much worse than they would have been had we been better prepared and armed with available, but undisclosed, information. Like the poorly designed and neglected levees that couldn’t hold back the flood waters, we never fortified our disaster preparedness system and were caught off guard as the virus unleashed itself on us.
When I moved to NOLA in July 2018, my neighbor told me she’d stayed during Katrina because this Uptown neighborhood is on high ground and doesn’t flood. She was one of the lucky ones. But high ground doesn’t protect you during this kind of storm.
A Mardi Gras We Won’t Forget
Mardi Gras was not without its own tragedies. After two people died on two separate days when they were run over by passing floats (one around the corner from my house), a policemen told me there should be barricades to keep people from getting too close. “But nobody listens, he said. “Nobody follows rules in this town, they just do whatever they want.”
Most folks here are following the shelter in place order and respecting the physical distancing recommendations. Some, however, will just not comply. Police officers had to break up large drunken crowds on St. Patrick’s Day, and when a group of people sitting too close to each other in the park defied an officer’s order to move further apart, he hauled off their lawn chairs.
Praying People Will Stay Home to Keep Us All Safe
Around the world and widely throughout this country, most churches, synagogues, and mosques are live streaming their services to protect congregants.
The Archdiocese of New York will broadcast Mass on Easter Sunday live from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We may not be able to gather in our churches this Easter, but we’ll be together in spirit,” said Cardinal Dolan. Clerics don’t see it as a choice, rather an obligation, an action for the greater good.
I walked by St. Stephen’s Catholic Church the other day where atop the church steps Monsignor Christopher Nalty was placing two chairs six feet apart in front of the tall arched double doors. I stopped to ask him how he was coping in these uncertain times.
The sacrament is very personal, he said, so things were difficult now, but he was maintaining the social distancing orders by hearing confessions outside of the sanctuary doors. With a smile, the priest shared how he was tempted to drive the four hours to bless his mother on Easter Sunday, but had decided not to because “my brothers and sisters would kill me.” I didn’t ask if he meant siblings or other clergy. Msgr. Nalty raised his arms as he spoke, revealing the plastic hospital bracelet around his wrist. He’s been visiting the hospital every day to administer last rights. That’s my job, he said, telling me proudly with a warm smile that he drew inspiration from Father Francis Xavier Seelos, the beatified New Orleans priest who died in 1847 from yellow fever after visiting and caring for victims of the disease.
Evangelical Pastor Says Pandemic Is “Politically Motivated”
Things are different an hour from here near Baton Rouge where the pastor at a church there says he believes the pandemic is “politically motivated.” He continues to defy the governor’s order (and the president’s suggestion) to restrict gatherings to no more than ten people, instead holding services for hundreds of parishioners that he transports in 29 busses from five different parishes.
The Reverend Tony Spell is among those who believe it is their constitutional right to assemble and any order restricting that assembly is a violation of their religious freedoms. Now I absolutely believe in religious freedom, and certainly in constitutional rights, but we are in the midst of a pandemic, a monumental public health crisis that enables states to exercise their broad powers (“police powers”) for the protection of the whole community. But other than issuing a citation, the elected sheriff there has done nothing to break up those gatherings. Does he fear bad publicity more than a potentially deadly virus?
“The Constitution,” US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in his 1905 majority opinion, “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.” Instead, “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic.” Its members “may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Saving Human Life Takes Precedence
In her op-ed entitled For God’s sake and ours, we must stop gathering for worship, Rabbi Katie Bauman from Touro Synagogue in New Orleans explained that, “the ancient rabbis of the early Common Era wisely anticipated times when religious observance would conflict with other important priorities, and they addressed it directly. Nearly 2,000 years ago, they wrote, “Potential danger to human life overrides the Sabbath.” (Mishnah Yoma 8:6). This declaration comes at the end of a discussion about caring for those with medical ailments, the treatment of which might interfere with religious observance. This teaching and later ones that echo it clarify that though observance of the Sabbath, and by extension other sacred obligations, is extremely important, the possibility of saving human life takes precedence.”
Social distancing, the rabbi wrote, even in its most dramatic form, need not eclipse or impede spiritual closeness.
We Gotta Walk the Walk
I take my daily walks, zigzagging back and forth across the street to maintain a safe distance from passersby. Friendly neighbors greet me from their front porches and we chat about life as it is now and how it was Before Coronavirus. I’ve even made some new friends. I took a long stroll in our wonderful City Park the other day, home to around 30,000 trees and the oldest grove of mature live oaks in the world, including two oaks that have survived somewhere between 500-750 years. I’m very thankful that I am healthy and can enjoy this bucolic open green space.
Looking For Eggs and a Missing Tortoise
Along with the sadness and fear, there is hope and there is humor. On my Next Door app, a woman said the store was out of eggs, and asked if anyone knew where she could find some. Someone replied that she had just bought some “*uck eggs at the Farmer’s Market” and everyone, er, quacked up. Then someone else added, “…but the Farmer’s Market is shit down now.” In another posting, someone wanted to know if anyone had seen her 40 pound tortoise wandering the neighborhood.
We’ve all learned that physical isolation doesn’t have to mean social isolation. I’ve been in steady contact with friends and family near and far and have reconnected with so many. In a long overdue call with a dear friend in Paris, I learned that she was recently widowed and was adjusting to being alone. A sudden burst of street noise interrupted our phone call. It was 8 pm there when Nicole abruptly ended our conversation to join fellow Parisians from her balcony for their nightly tribute to healthcare workers and first responders. I have to go, have to go, she said, excited for some much-needed camaraderie during this period of isolation.
I’m very fortunate to be healthy but have developed a case of productivity guilt from a flood of emails with tips about how to be über-productive while self isolating. Well-meaning people suggest it’s the perfect time to do a major Marie Kondo in the house, learn a foreign language, cook and freeze a week’s worth of meals, and do Pilates every day even if you didn’t do that before. Hearing about everyone’s hyper-productivity makes me more anxious than I already was just trying to manage my emotions during a global pandemic. My coping mechanism has consisted mostly of major carb and Netflix consumption.
But I should give myself a little credit for making an effort to get on my indoor rowing machine, if for only fifteen minutes a day (I did a half hour today!) I also joined my writer’s group on two different days for a full six hours via Zoom. We were lucky not to experience any of that truly shameful and often hateful Zoombombing. Pandemics seem to draw out the conspiracy theorists and other crazies.
It’s a very scary picture, but at the same time, there is so much humanity here.
Many Acts of Kindness
On my last visit to the grocery store a few weeks ago, a guy in the totally full parking lot insisted I take the last available shopping cart. If it weren’t for social distancing, I would have offered to share. When, after a prior minor surgery, I worried about going to the main hospital complex during a pandemic to have the stitches removed, my surgeon’s nurse very kindly made an after-hours house call. Maybe these seem like small things, but they really previewed for me the way most New Orleanians have since risen to the occasion.
We are fortunate that we can still “make groceries,” as they say here, and I thank every at-risk grocery worker who helps keep the stores open and the shelves stocked.
Who Says There’s No Such Thing As a Free Lunch?
As in other cities, New Orleans’s restaurant industry has been hit hard with closings, yet even with their business losses, a number of restaurants and suppliers are pitching in to help those in need as many did after Katrina. Blue Oak BBQ co-founders Ronnie Evans and Philip Moseley have been offering laid off hospitality workers and out of work musicians free Bag and Beer lunches with pork sandwiches, chips and beer every weekend. Blue Oak is partnering with Dixie Beer, which had been closed since Katrina, but reopened last year, and Elmer’s Chee Wees, which was destroyed in Katrina, but also made a comeback. Says Co-owner Alan Elmer, Sr, “We were out for about 14 months, but Elmer’s is a true New Orleans survivor.” Like many other New Orleanians indeed. (Full disclosure, Evans is my daughter’s significant other.)
Missing My Fave Spots
One of my favorite breakfast spots, Slim Goodies Diner, was the first restaurant to reopen after Katrina, serving the Re-Population Combo. It’s still on the menu for pickup as is the Orleans Slammer that comes with “a hurricane of hash browns” and “a hangover chaser extraordinaire.” I heard that right after Katrina, they fired up the grill in the back forty and just cooked whatever they had on hand.
When I sit in that backyard garden sipping one of their tall Bloody Mary’s garnished with bacon, I try to imagine what it must have been like back then. Last time I was there, our super friendly server regaled us with stories about some the restaurant’s eclectic regulars, a few of whom had been dining there since before Katrina. After I mentioned my interest in visiting the small artsy town of Pontchatoula, she shared that she was from there, told me about her life, then wrote out a list of the best junktique stores and places to eat there.
Very Special Delivery Folks
Because I am able to do so, I try to support local businesses by ordering from them or using the delivery services that keep people in jobs. I’ve been relying on no-contact doorstep grocery delivery every two weeks, and boy oh boy am I ever grateful for those brave delivery folks. What used to be an indulgence is now a safety precaution—with this exception: I found a local ice cream delivery service as well as one that delivers wine and alcohol. (Please don’t judge me for my sweet tooth or desire for alcoholic libations in the middle of a pandemic. Like many, I’m trying to make the best of it and at the same time support local businesses, workers and their families.)
Insomnia Cookies had my order to me within a half hour. At 10 pm, having traced the cookie baking, transit and delivery on their app, I opened my door to find a bag on my steps and no human in sight. Kinda felt like contraband, which may be why the Banana Pudding ice cream tasted so good. The next night, I had a glass waiting when Minibar delivered four bottles of chilled rosé wine to my doorstep. And in keeping with social distancing recommendations, tips were included in both orders.
We’ll Drink Solo to That
It’s legal to drink in the streets here and New Orlineans are accustomed to taking walks, “go-cups” in hand. I look forward to what I’ve started calling my evening Wine Walks. Like many bars here, the iconic Ms. Mae’s near me on the corner of Napoleon and Magazine, is normally open 24/7. Since they never close, they don’t have locks on their front doors so they’ve had to cover the entrance with plywood boards.
Virtually Tipsy and Virtual Tipping
With bar hopping not an option now, some people have embraced the Japanese tradition of On-nomi—online drinking with friends. They maintain their good spirits sharing Quaratinis at virtual cocktail parties and happy hours.
To keep their favorite bartenders and other New Orleans-area service industry workers afloat, newly christened home mixologists and loyal restaurant/bar customers are contributing to online tip jars like NOLA Virtual Tip Jar, The New Orleans Tip Party, and Service Industry Tips. Coffee lovers here and throughout the country can help support baristas through GoFundBean, which gets my vote for the best name.
Local Craft Hand Sanitizers and Other Important Stuff
Since they are in the business of making ethyl alcohol, the main ingredient in hand sanitizer, many local distilleries have transformed their operations to produce it. NOLA’s relatively unknown, and the state’s largest distillery, Porchjam, has halted their vodka production and transformed their entire operation to produce hand sanitizer and pure alcohol.
Lula Restaurant-Distillery branded theirs “Kill ‘Dat” and is offering a complimentary bottle with every food or beverage order while Seven Three Distilling Company is selling 16 and 32 ounce bottles of the stuff. Goodwood NOLA, a design and fabrication firm that normally produces furniture, now has a crew of local craftspeople making face masks and other protective equipment. Through her non-profit, ricRACK, Alison Parker normally teaches kids how to sew costumes using donated recycled clothing and fabrics. She’s now assembled a network of costume makers and other crafts people that use those donated materials to churn out masks for local hospitals.
There’s a lot of good happening this little city that once defied expectations and came back even stronger. After Katrina, people were wondering when they could go home. Now we’re all wondering when we can leave our homes.
Today I inhaled the sweet fragrance of spring as I walked past some just-blooming star jasmine. So, there it is, and here we are.
New Orleans will rebound again, and when she does, please come visit. Stay safe y’all.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Robin Plaskoff Horton.
Support Initiatives and Funds for Service Industry Workers in New Orleans
Greater New Orleans Foundation Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program
In partnership with the Louisiana Restaurant Association and with support from Gayle Benson and the McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco, the Greater New Orleans Foundation has launched the Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program, an application-based grant program for local service and hospitality workers. To qualify for the $1,000 grant, applicants must have earned below 80 percent of the Area Median Income ($53,900 for family of four in Orleans Parish) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and worked more than 32 hours per week in restaurants, bars, or hotels in GNOF’s 13-parish region prior to March 9.
New Orleans Business Alliance Gig Economy Relief Fund
With a goal of creating fund assets of a minimum of $500,000, the NOLABA has committed $100,000 to a relief fund to meet the needs of gig economy workers who have been directly impacted by Covid-19.
Culture Aid NOLA In collaboration between MACCNO, NOMAF, No Hunger NOLA, Healthy Hospitality, and other organizations, CAN is working with restaurants, management groups, suppliers, and chefs to provide access to healthy food for out of work service and entertainment workers, and also assists cultural groups with Medicaid access, navigation and advocacy.