As massive coronavirus shutdowns took hold in California and New York, down in Louisiana this past Sunday Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state had the world’s fastest growth rate of confirmed cases and ordered home sheltering until April 13.
Three days later, with 1,795 positive cases and 65 deaths in the state attributed to COVID-19, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that Orleans Parish (which encompasses the city) had the sixth-highest rate among U.S. counties, all the rest being in New York. After public officials protested that the state had not been included in President Donald Trump’s disaster declarations that covered New York, California, and Washington state, the White House added Louisiana to its declaration on Wednesday, clearing the way for federal assistance.
As Louisiana fluctuates in the top ranks of per capita cases, New Orleans is the epicenter of the Gulf South with 827 confirmed cases and 38 deaths attributed to COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, according to the state health department.
Edwards hammered home a bleak message. “I’m going to say that again so people can understand what I just said,” the governor emphasized, citing the state’s skyrocketing coronavirus cases. “What happened in Italy is, they started too late. People didn’t socially distance. … And the world learned that you have to act fast and in places that may not look like they have a problem yet.”
The major New Orleans COVID-19 cluster is at Lambeth House, an affluent retirement high-rise that also has a nursing wing; the building overlooks a bend of the Mississippi River levee with terraces and balconies affording scenic views. Forty-two residents have tested positive for COVID-19, according to health officials. Three of the 11 deaths attributed to the virus at Lambeth were retired physicians who attended elite Carnival balls, like many of the independent living residents, according to obituaries and interviews with families of residents. All of the deceased were men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has a research team at Lambeth House seeking epidemiological data.
Unlike the 2005 impact of Hurricane Katrina flooding, which hit hardest in poorer, downriver wards, the coronavirus’ tentacles first reached into an elite enclave in the wealthy Uptown neighborhood. Lambeth residents pay a $275,000 registration fee with 90 percent refundable to designated heirs upon the person’s demise, unless the resident withdraws first. Monthly fees start at $2,971, depending on apartment size, according to its website.
Against the background of a leap-frogging death toll, the three-week Mardi Gras parade season that ended Feb. 25 is now widely seen as a rolling vector, infecting untold numbers of revelers in the vast crowds. The city population of 393,000 more than triples with tourists and visitors during the last four days of parades, parties, jammed nightclubs, and high-end balls. Three of the Lambeth deceased attended the upper-crust Krewe of Hermes ball the week before Fat Tuesday, according to a Lambeth family member.
Among those deaths now attributed to COVID-19, Roland W. Lewis, 68, was a longtime Mardi Gras Indian leader and founder of House of Dance and Feathers, a small museum with displays of the parading culture in a Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.
Other prominent figures have fallen ill. New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and Roman Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond have tested positive. So has Phil Frazier, the fabled tuba player and founder of Rebirth Brass Band.
Coronavirus testing sites are up and running at several places in the city. But with testing kit orders backlogged, the results are slow to come. Locals who came back 15 years ago after the massive flooding to dig out and rebuild have been thrown into survival mode once again.
Food distribution outlets are popping up on St. Claude Avenue, a thoroughfare of local bohemia, among other locations, in a city where nearly a third of the people live at or below the poverty level.
The virus’s lethal threat fell across the city like a fog of déjà vu, stirring memories of 2005 and the flooding that engulfed 80 percent of the city, an area seven times the size of the island of Manhattan. Residents bracing for the virus invoked the resilience of people who came back, dug out, and rebuilt over the next several years: We have been here before, and we’ll get through it again.
George Ingmire, a sound engineer for film sets and music productions, and a popular deejay on WWOZ FM, the city’s roots radio station, compared the social distancing orders to the massive displacement of people across the metro area caused by the vast flooding after Katrina. “It’s like an evacuation without an evacuation,” he said.
Ingmire is one of the tens of thousands of New Orleanians in the gig economy—freelancers of all stripes, artists, writers, people working in music, film, the once-flourishing art galleries, sous-chefs, waitstaff, and food subcontractors—who are once again being thrown into a scramble for existence.
Many in Ingmire’s position normally don’t qualify for unemployment benefits and hope that Congress’ relief package will provide a lifeline. Ingmire said he lost jobs totaling $3,500 over the past two weeks.
In response to workers like Ingmire in the gig economy, the New Orleans Business Alliance created a relief fund. New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson donated $1 million to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for assistance to people outside the sphere of unemployment relief.
Katrina’s impact was so shattering that on the third day of the flood, with the vast majority of residents evacuated, a beleaguered WWL radio reporter, Dave Cohen, assessing the widespread damage, voiced a collective angst: “New Orleans is over. Where do I live?”
But as the city slowly drained and Congress moved at an aching pace on a relief package, people came back to dig out and rebuild. The reporting on the flood and its aftermath by the Times-Picayune won two Pulitzer Prizes, much of it by reporters who lost their homes.
Today’s descendant of that paper, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, won another Pulitzer two years ago for local reporting, yet now its editor, Peter Kovacs, a veteran of the 2005 coverage, sent a candid email to subscribers, seeking donations and stating, “our journalism was so vivid because we were both covering and experiencing the event simultaneously. The current coronavirus crisis feels very much the same.
“We have a staff of about 120 journalists, the largest in Louisiana, and every one of us is living and covering the health emergency. We have people self-quarantining and others working on the front lines, visiting the medical facilities where they are caring for the sick. We have staff members with children unexpectedly at home, sagging from boredom. We face the same kind of uncertainties as workers in other businesses, and we are watching nervously.”
According to an internal memo quoted in the Washington Post, the paper is issuing temporary furloughs to “about a tenth of our 400-member workforce and the rest of us will begin four-day workweeks. … The furloughs will chiefly impact people who cover sports and social events, which have been curtailed.” The paper also instituted a 20 percent pay cut for all employees.
A city that’s adept in costume and mask-making has shown a grassroots resilience. Volunteers are organizing supply drives and sewing face masks for nurses and medical workers. IATSE Local 478—a union of film set workers, part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Pictures Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts—coordinated with the crew of NCIS: New Orleans and local costume and prop houses to manufacture and deliver some 30,000 gloves, thousands of N95 masks and respirators, hundreds of isolation gowns, coveralls, caps, soap, sanitizer, alcohol, wipes, personal toiletries, and full face shields to first responders and medical staff at local health facilities that are stretched to the brink.
Similarly, distilleries are converting their operations to produce hand sanitizer instead of booze, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported.
But the flipside of this homespun mentality is a rooted indifference to politics. For hard-pressed officials, it’s hard to persuade people steeped in a culture of open air music festivals, cookouts, and parades of all kinds through the seasons to stay inside. Mayor LaToya Cantrell canceled the St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday parades on March 17. Crowds took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day anyway. “Use your head, stop the spread,” she insisted, calling for social distancing a week before Edwards’ statewide order.
As the social distancing blanket, wrinkled with boredom and fear, fell across a city whose DNA trumpets a celebration of life lived large, revelers are slowly learning to adapt. Jazz musicians like Jon Cleary and Tom McDermott have taken to livestreaming music from their homes.
New Orleans may be accustomed to adapting to calamity, but the suddenly silent streets are creating bizarre new problems. A viral video from last week shows scores of rats scrambling in the middle of the typically packed Bourbon Street, outside an empty restaurant. With restaurants operating takeout only, the garbage dumpsters in which rats feasted on leftovers held thinner pickings.
“For most people it was obvious that the separation must last until the end of the epidemic,” Albert Camus writes in The Plague, his 1947 novel of bubonic plague spread by rats in the Algerian seacoast town of Oran. Coronavirus springs from a different source, but the parallels with social distancing are striking. Camus writes: “This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares.”
Bourbon Street is empty of the nightly flow of humankind. City workers are resorting to putting rat bait in sewers.
Yet across town, a survivor emerged. On a balmy morning Uptown, 77-year-old George Krall, a retired school teacher and Lambeth House resident, was taking a walk outside, after two weeks of self-quarantine due to a positive test for the virus. He credited the nurse practitioner who checked on him, taking his temperature as he took Tylenol. “Now I’m allowed to leave my apartment,” Krall told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. “I’ve gone two weeks with no fever, no symptoms.”