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Opinion This plague is not a hurricane

An empty street in the French Quarter in New Orleans on Friday. (Chris Graythen/AFP/Getty Images)

Walter Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University.

On Mardi Gras Day this year, we had friends over to watch the marchers and musicians of the St. Anne parade strut and dance past our balcony on Royal Street. By the end of the procession, many of the marchers had dropped out and joined our party, wearing their clever costumes. A few were dressed as the coronavirus, with bodysuits that mimicked the beer bottle and hoods that made them look like viral rockets. It was still early enough to be amusing.

Now as I look down from our balcony, Royal Street is nearly deserted. A lone cornetist on the corner is playing a slow rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” but there are few people to drop tips into his bucket.

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Did Mardi Gras help make New Orleans a hot spot in the current plague? Probably. Should it have been canceled? Well, obviously, just as in hindsight it would have been good if we’d canceled all big gatherings and sporting events in the country in mid-February rather than mid-March. But I can’t blame our governor or mayor for not knowing that. By Mardi Gras weekend, there had been no deaths or reported community-spread cases in the United States, and Trump that Monday tweeted, “The coronavirus is very much under control.”

Now there are 3,540 reported cases in Louisiana, as of Sunday, making it rank as the ninth most-afflicted state in the nation, and 1,127 have been hospitalized. New Orleans has 1,350 of the cases and has suffered 73 deaths so far. The governor says hospitals in some parishes may soon be filled, so the city’s convention facility is being converted into an emergency facility. While the toll will be nowhere near the 1,500 or so who were killed in Louisiana by Katrina, I understand why we have been called an eye of this hurricane. It’s an apt analogy, because the atmosphere in much of the city, other than the hospitals, is eerily calm but charged, just as in a hurricane’s eye.

There is still some music in the streets. Doreen Ketchens, the beloved clarinetist who plays with her band on Royal Street in front of our corner grocery, performed to an empty sidewalk a few days ago. “It’s the week after the madness, but we’re out here anyway,” she said. “We wanted to give some music to a very quiet Royal Street.” She sings a final rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” stressing the verse about “when the sun begins to shine,” then plays happy birthday to her tuba player. In Jackson Square, a lone drummer plays in front of the cathedral. As Brandi Carlile once sang, “You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you’re standing in the eye.”

Walker Percy, a Louisiana novelist with a wry philosophical depth and grace worn lightly, had a theory about hurricanes. “It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” he wrote of the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” During a hurricane, we no longer feel alienated or uncertain. We know what to do, and we do it. We are together, in the same boat. Then we have a hurricane party.

But this plague is not a hurricane. In a hurricane you know that, if you ride it out for a day, the sun will begin to shine, the waters will recede, and the earth will begin to heal. During this plague, we’re not quite sure what to do, other than stay socially distanced. New Orleanians are not good at social distancing. It’s also unclear how this storm ends. The song that resonates is not Brandi’s “The Eye,” it’s the Neville Brothers’ cover of “Sitting in Limbo.”

So we look for something to do that might be useful. Throughout the city, restaurants have set up tables outside for people to come buy takeout plates of their specialties. For the homeless and less fortunate, pickup trucks with volunteers drive through the neighborhoods handing out boxed meals for free. Various groups, including my Tulane students, have scrambled to set up funds to help hospitality workers, musicians, those in the gig economy and others who have been hurt.

A few days ago, my wife and I drove two hours south to Grand Isle, where the marshes meet the Gulf of Mexico. People used to go there in previous centuries to escape the plagues. There was a semblance of normalcy. The Starfish restaurant was serving at outdoor tables, and as we drove back up along Bayou Lafourche, we stopped at the tin shed of Big Jim’s seafood dock and bought a couple of dozen oysters just off the boat.

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Louisiana used to go through these plagues regularly. The worst year on record was 1853, when 7,800 of 115,000 New Orleans residents died of yellow fever. Right after that plague receded, the town’s first Mardi Gras krewe was formed. The pent-up city needed a release.

Will there be a Mardi Gras next year? Yes, but only if it’s safe by then. There’s a resilience in a city that has come through many plagues and hurricanes in its history and which, like our nation, will come through this one.

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