A few days later, a friend stood on my back steps, ready to harvest lemons from my prolific tree. “Don’t hug me — I have the weirdest cough,” he said as he backed away from my open arms. “My lungs hurt. Honestly, it’s kind of scaring me.”
During Carnival, a festival that lasts from Jan. 6 to Mardi Gras, New Orleans welcomes the world to join us in nonstop, over-the-top celebration. It is, normally, a time of joy and togetherness, excess and hospitality. This year, though, people talked of a Mardi Gras curse: As the wreckage of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel loomed over Canal Street, two people died after slipping under the wheels of tandem floats. Meanwhile, a virus circulated among us, unseen.
One week after Mardi Gras day, California confirmed the first case of covid-19 attributable to community spread. Events were canceled and schools shut down across the country. This response, we know now, came much too late. The United States is now the global center of the pandemic, with more than 180,000 confirmed cases of the disease as of this writing, and Louisiana’s death rate is the highest, per capita, in the nation.
Louisiana’s outbreak has been traced to the Carnival celebrations that bring all of New Orleans — and 1.4 million visitors — onto the streets to dance and drink and catch Chinese beads thrown from handmade floats. During Carnival, nearly every house along the parade route hosts a party, and every patch of viewing ground is full. New Orleanians open our homes to friends and strangers; we share boxes of fried chicken, beers and bathrooms; we watch each other’s kids and eat each other’s king cakes; we jostle one another, hollering, as we reach up for long beads, Zulu coconuts, Muses shoes and doubloons. For three weeks every year, our sometimes divided city comes together to host one of the biggest free parties in the world. But this time, our abundant hospitality — the very thing that makes New Orleans culturally and psychologically resilient and financially viable — has made us more vulnerable to disease.
Our transition from “The City That Care Forgot” to a city in quarantine was swift — and challenging. Hours after the city’s first covid-19 death March 13, Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) canceled weekend events and urged New Orleanians to stay home. But the next day, as I crossed Magazine Street to buy bread, the crowd of sweaty, green-painted St. Patrick’s Day revelers was so dense I had to make long detours to maintain my new six-foot bubble of personal space. Later that night, police broke up a block party of hundreds spilling onto the street outside of Tracey’s, our local Irish pub. Community is how we survive our disasters here, big and small. We throw hurricane parties, dance beside the hearse. To shut our doors is anathema to us, but now that isolation is necessary, it is being enforced.
Pundits have tried to pin the epidemic’s spread on New Orleans. “Blame Carnival,” wrote Reuters, the implication being that we should have known what would happen and canceled Mardi Gras. As the country’s Caribbean cousin, the hedonistic black sheep of the Puritanical Southern fold, we’re used to catching this kind of heat. Even Hurricane Katrina was our fault, according to some evangelicals — God destroyed us, like Sodom, because of the Southern Decadence parade. So let’s be clear: New Orleans flooded because the federal levees failed, and the coronavirus overtook the country because of testing delays. On Feb. 25, Fat Tuesday, no one had accurate information about the virus’s spread in the United States — not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not the mayor of New Orleans. The federal government had issued no guidance about canceling events. No one in the country was sheltering in place.
“We rely on the facts to make decisions for the people that we serve,” Cantrell told Wolf Blitzer on CNN. “Given clear direction, we would not have had Mardi Gras, and I would have been the leader to cancel it.”
I believe her. After all, what happens on Bourbon Street stays on Bourbon Street, and the residents of New Orleans — who are particularly vulnerable thanks to high rates of poverty and chronic disease — are getting sick.
My friend’s Carnival cough lasted two weeks, then vanished, unidentified. The art gallery where we danced the night of Krewe du Vieux closed when its entire staff fell ill. At a nursing home in the Riverbend, 13 people have died. We have lost beloved baseball coach Charles Dickey; well-known bounce DJ Oliver Stokes, a.k.a. DJ Black N Mild; football patriarch Bobby Hebert; and Ronald Lewis, founder of the Big 9 Social Aid & Pleasure Club and the House of Dance and Feathers. We grieve for a 39-year-old social worker and a 17-year-old child. The total death toll in our small city pauses, at this writing, at 101, but this is only the beginning, and these deaths are just a few of the many that will come.
Louisiana residents have been under stay-at-home orders since March 23, and for many of us, this time of distancing and disease is a relatively peaceful disaster: Our roofs remain over our heads and the water stays where it belongs. But in a city that lives and breathes togetherness — and that relies on its hospitality industry not only to nourish the city’s soul, but to provide, by some estimates, 80,000 jobs — this time will prove to have been a catastrophe of its own kind. Many of our elders will leave us. Many spaces will shutter. How much of our culture will go with them?
As my family sits outside at dusk, eating takeout fried chicken from a neighborhood restaurant we hope will make it through, an unseen trombonist plays his horn beyond the garden wall. No gig tonight. We hope we will see him again soon, that he — and the bar he plays in — will still be here when this ends.