NEW ORLEANS, LA—In barely over a week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Louisiana has spiked from one to nearly 200, making its per-capita infection rate the highest in the country behind Seattle. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to in New Orleans believes the virus has been circulating undetected here for some time. A person who works in a library says her boyfriend turned to her in the middle of a Mardi Gras celebration in late February and remarked how fucked up it would be if the virus were out there: 1.4 million visitors swelling the city, everyone partying, swapping drinks and making out. It almost certainly was.
“Everyone is surprised it didn’t come sooner,” a hospital resident says. Someone who works for the city tells me “it’s the first time I’ve experienced a national emergency in a way that affects everybody.” The survival tactics formed through the trauma of previous disasters—meetings, communal meals, visits—can actively harm you now. Most everyone is trying to cobble together a plan. The state has been unhappy with the results so far.
In parts of New Orleans, the landscape changed dramatically between Sunday and Monday, when the city’s mayor sharply restricted its restaurants and bars: on Monday night in the Garden District the party lights were still spinning, but the streets were empty except for the occasional oblivious knot of tourists waving drinks. A cop parked next a store selling liquor and chips, waiting to enforce the business ban that started at 12 a.m.
In the absence of direct orders, most everyone has been throwing together a strategy in the best way they know how. I’m cobbling it together too. Last week, which now feels like a decade ago, I went into quarantine here, more than a thousand miles from home. There was no official policy from my employer on what traveling reporters should do if they came in proximity to the novel coronavirus, and every medical professional I could access gave me different kinds of guidance. Like more than 1,000 journalists across the country, I’d traveled to New Orleans to attend a conference; unlike most of those people, I’d planned to stay for an additional week to report. By Monday, my pre-scheduled interviews with clinical workers had been canceled; there was a waning possibility I’d be doing the school visits I’d planned. On Tuesday I got an email informing me someone at the conference I’d attended had presumptively been infected with Covid-19. The case was later, of course, confirmed: You don’t send out an email like that unless you already sort of know.
This was before the school closures and restaurant shut-downs and city-wide suggestions that everyone stay indoors, before it became impossible to reach an airplane company, but during the time when the CDC’s guidance was a hard 14-day lockdown, and during a time when it certainly felt like something was about to crest. The New York Times closed and power-washed its offices after conference attendees returned to work and had the chance to potentially infect the office; a colleague I’d traveled with, already back home, self-quarantined. The people who ran the conference, like most institutional bodies, suggested we reach out to our healthcare providers, which was absurd: The lines at my primary care provider’s office were all busy. After trying all day, the best I could get was hold music for a few hours before someone, on the other end of the line, shut off the call. I sought the unofficial advice of nurses and doctors I know who gave me answers that ranged from “get on a plane” to “go directly to urgent care.” Neither answer felt satisfying. New York’s cases were ballooning, and it felt wrong to travel around large groups of people, knowing what I did. I also have some reasons to fear for my own safety, and didn’t particularly relish the thought of attempting to drive home and falling ill halfway.
I like to think we’re all doing the best that we can, under our circumstances, both for ourselves and for the broader public’s health. The most class-conscious line about social distancing is that the people with the option to stay away from other people should, to make up for all the people whose jobs are more necessary and yet somehow still underpaid. I write a lot about how status and salary impact access to healthcare; I’d also rather be a hypocrite than die an early death. Once I decided to stay in New Orleans, I called in a favor. An hour later, I was on the phone with a doctor at Tulane: In a moment of crisis, I couldn’t get help through the channels that were supposed to be able to serve me, the ones that the government recommends, but the kind person on the other end of the line wrote me a prescription for asthma medication without question and temporarily assuaged my broader fears.
In the midst of an impossible set of conflicting concerns, I made what seemed like the most reasonable decision. I extended my stay and did what I imagine a lot of people who are self-quarantining alone do: I read more news than I should, and tried to stay busy, and took my temperature about once every hour. For the first six or so nights—the period over which they say symptoms usually appear—I lay awake trying (and mostly failing) to catalogue what was going on with my body. Anxiety can make your chest tight, too.
I also spent my time calling everyone I could think of who lives here to ask what they were doing. Doing the best we can is so variable—and entirely dependent on the access we have. I was curious how other people were interpreting their impossible choices. I paced the small guest house where I was staying and talked to friends three times removed, people I’d met before I went into quarantine, sources for the stories I’d planned in another reality that are now shelved. The problem with the guidance we’ve been given by our institutions is that it’s at once total and vague, and New Orleans, with its massive hospitality industry and high poverty rate and history of being ravished by largely preventative natural disasters, has its own very tangible concerns.
What I ended up with was a cross-sectional, though absolutely not comprehensive, account of the week the city went from a single case of coronavirus to more than 100, as residents bumped up against the reality of what’s happening across the country and negotiated the best things they could do given the options they had. But the totalness of it can be challenging: “I’m struggling,” one New Orleans teacher told me, “with what is a reasonable way to be.”
Last Monday Sara Griffin, a 35-year-old medical resident who’d been on a geriatric rotation a week ago was called in to pick up an ICU shift when someone called in sick. They’d heard through word of mouth about a potential Covid-19 patient, already on a respirator, in intensive care at the hospital where they were filling in. At the time they were working in the same unit as the patient, doctors were still waiting on tests to rule out other respiratory illnesses like the flu. Griffin was confused about why they weren’t testing, but it appeared there were procedural blockades. “It’s hard to separate the hospital’s response from the state’s response,” they say, and at that time, there just weren’t many available tests.
Griffin was wearing a mask and gown on the ICU shift, and didn’t have direct contact with the patient during procedures that were particularly high-risk. But when they got off their shift they wrote to their program director seeking guidance—there wasn’t a policy about what residents with potential exposure should do. “The fact that nobody thought to say, you should not come back tomorrow, was bad,” they say. Griffin says they waited 24 hours to hear back from the program director, and in the meantime, decided to take their own precautions, especially since they were caring for the elderly in the course of their work. “I personally made the decision to self-quarantine,” they say. “I wasn’t on rotation. I was not about to be the doctor that exposed the nursing home.” They spent the next few days doing paperwork and reading a stack of queer sci-fi a friend of theirs dropped off. “I do think we all had our heads in the sand a week ago,” Griffin told me on Sunday. “And now it’s here.”
Every week the Morris Jeff Community School, an independent school in New Orleans less than two miles from that hospital, chooses an attribute for its student body to focus on. At the morning assembly that Monday, the principal announced the theme was “caring.” “One way to be caring to yourself and your community,” administrators told students, “is to wash your hands.”
The school tried to strike a balance, says Kelli Gann, a 33-year-old third-grade teacher at Morris Jeff: You needed the kids to know what was going on, but you didn’t want to make them scared. Gann says the kids were “so sweet,” reminding each other to wash between their fingers. But that Monday, the first presumptive coronavirus case was announced in New Orleans Parish: A colleague of Gann’s flashed the headline to her on her phone. The school had been cleaning more, she says, and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. Her brother had warned she and her family to be prepared with Clorox wipes and Mucinex weeks before, but the family had mostly humored him, she says—he’s the sort to be prepared, and everyone gently gives him a hard time.
Still, on Monday after work Gann stocked up on groceries like she would for hurricane season, texted friends in the neighborhood to see if anyone needed a ride or anything from the store. From Monday, “there was a kind of underlying anxiety that started to build throughout the week,” she says, with school staff members “constantly checking their phones.”
Mid-week, Catherine Powell, a bartender who also events company, was getting worried too: Business had begun to slow down somewhat, and the prospect of state guidance loomed over her bosses. No one she worked with had visibly gotten sick, but “the hysteria is getting to some people,” she says. Co-workers were getting nervous, talking about their throats feeling scratchy, a sensation Powell chalked up to nerves. One girl, concerned about the close contact with customers, simply panicked and went home.
At Elizabeth’s, a bar and restaurant in the Bywater, Powell makes $6.50 an hour. While we were on the phone, she asked a server how much she made. The answer was $2.35. “At this point, knowing it’s going to slow down, if these idiots are going to be out, I might as well make money while I can … I need to make up the difference between $6.50 an hour and a livable wage,” she says. When the local Irish Parade was canceled, a friend of Powell’s lost a year-changing $100-an-hour performance gig. They’d already bought hundreds of dollars of costuming, all of it wasted. There’s just no other conceivable occasion for Leprechaun drag.
Powell’s boyfriend works for a company that puts on parties: weddings were getting canceled, sometimes after the crew had arrived with equipment and began to set up. On Wednesday, Powell says her boss at the events company where she picks up work made everyone sign a waiver—“it was definitely a liability thing”—promising they didn’t have coronavirus, and that if they did get it, they wouldn’t lie. The absurdity of this was not lost on Powell: “At this point, nobody in my bracket could afford to have a test done,” she says.
Powell’s managers held a meeting where they touched on the importance of hand-washing and told staff that if they had severe allergies, they shouldn’t work the season. Customers were getting spooked, and they couldn’t have anyone looking sick. Concerned patrons kept calling to ask what kind of cleaning products were in use.
By Wednesday the number of presumptive cases in Louisiana had jumped from one to 13. The governor of the state, like many others, declared a state of emergency. Events and parades were canceled, though businesses remained open. On Friday, at Powell’s restaurant job, the entire staff of Elizabeth’s gathered around the restaurant’s upstairs bar to watch Trump’s rather unhinged address on the off chance he said anything that might apply to them. Powell, concerned about her livelihood and the very near future, told me restaurant hosts were wearing gloves, they were cleaning more, and she was trying to convince her family not to unnecessarily horde supplies. Between Monday and Sunday Powell and her partner lost what she estimates as $800 in lost wages and canceled events.
On Friday morning at the Morris School, one of Gann’s more civically minded third-graders wrote a letter that began: “Dear South Korea” and asked the country to send coronavirus tests.
At one in the afternoon that Friday, the governor made a state proclamation. Gann was teaching when the special education teacher came into her classroom and flashed her a headline from Nola.com: She tried to keep a “poker face,” sent the kids to art class, and planned how she was going to tell her students the school was closing immediately. “At first the kids were really excited,” she says. “But they had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. I had to tell them even grownups hadn’t experienced this either, it hasn’t happened since 1918.”
Gann feels lucky to have a salaried job and a union—she’ll continue getting paid as she and her colleagues coordinate distance learning and assistance for her students’ families. When I reached a state worker who’d like to be called Andy, he described scenarios that had been “so far not that bad” personally, though he, like others, appears gravely concerned. If his son had been younger, perhaps, it would have been more challenging: “There are a lot of folks who have young kids, who are going to rely on grandparents” for childcare, he says. “The age range that needs to be most protected is going to be caregivers.”
In Andy’s family, the early effects of the outbreak have been muted, comparatively: His wife is working from home, he’s trying to keep his older relatives cared for and indoors. His son, out of school, is fending for himself. His office is trying to figure out how it’s going to operate in a way that “encourages good social distancing” but does not entirely shut down. Andy is more concerned about the vulnerable populations in his city, the homeless encampments where the viral outbreak will be “devastating.” “It’s bigger than public health, it’s our whole economic structure,” he says.
On Friday, learning of school closures, librarians in New Orleans prepared like they would for a hurricane: They cleaned out the fridge, emptied the book drop. One person who works in the local system told me that Friday was the day her library stopped handling library cards and instructing people to place their own books on the scanner. But it’s not like they were sanitizing the books, she said, and the computers were already getting wiped down every day. “A lot of old people” and low-income people use the library, she told me, and that concerned her—when we spoke, she and her colleagues were planning a sick-out, as the branch had proposed a compromise in which the libraries stayed open but the number of visitors was capped. “I really want us to not go to work anymore,” the library staff member told me. “Half of our coworkers are over 60. They’re terrified of getting sick.” And, she added, if the library stayed open, they couldn’t convince older or vulnerable residents to stay away.
On Saturday, I had an experience that appears fairly common: I reluctantly broke my quarantine. I needed some groceries, and if we’re being honest, maybe something to drink. Even after spending a short time by myself, I found the experience of being in a relatively busy area jarring. When I turned a corner around the parking lot of a grocery store, I found the opposite street teeming with people, most of them middle-aged, all of them sloshed and wearing green. I overheard a man hacking up a lung in a tight knot of his friends, one of whom gleefully joked about “The Corona.” It was spooky and impossible to square with the reality I’d been mostly experiencing through the grim mandates coming from my phone. Later that night, someone posted a video of the police attempting to clear out Bourbon Street on Twitter. “This is an actual lie. The cops came and as soon as they left we all partied again,” wrote @Raunchy_Gandalf in reply.
The City of New Orleans has been reluctant to hobble its hospitality industry, which has been said to account for as many as 80,000 jobs. But by Sunday, there were 79 cases in the state, and two Orleans Parish residents had died. The infection is spreading faster here than in other cities. On Sunday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a press conference admonishing people partying, and local authorities announced strict mandates for bars and restaurants. The libraries announced they would close.
On Monday morning, Powell got a text telling her Elizabeth’s was shuttering for two weeks with no pay: Her boss didn’t want to deal with the new mandates. She’s thinking about trying to nanny again, but first she and her boyfriend are going camping for a few days. A musician I spoke to, Zoe Boekbinder, canceled a long-planned tour would amount to about a fifth of her yearly income, but still can’t get her parents to effectively self-isolate. When she visited to drop off food from a safe distance, she found her 70-year-old mother’s husband had invited similarly aged visitors over. Boekbinder is pretty sure one of the people that lives in her building has contracted the virus. But he’s pretty young, and so is she. They aren’t particularly concerned about their own health.
Ashana Bigard, a parent and education activist in the 11th ward, told me on Monday she was skeptical of the school closures. After all, the Wal-Mart next to her house is still open, and only 5,000 people have died so far. The scope of the food insecurity children will experience is more pressing, she said. “If the school is shut off for three months, a lot of kids and families are gonna die of starvation,” she says. “That’s our pandemic.” Which isn’t to mention the issue of internet access, or coordinating childcare for parents who work two or three jobs. On Monday, her kids out of school for the first time, Bigard told them they could start their take-home work on Tuesday—she had meetings to go to. She spent the day traveling and speaking with various community organizations she’s active in, trying to come up with a “coordinated plan.” They were trying to fill the gap the state would not. She really thought the next big disaster would be spurred by climate change, but given the circumstances, she’s trying to take care of her community. She’s telling people not to panic, doing the best that she can.
Griffin, the medical resident, got the call Sunday night that because their exposure was considered limited, and perhaps because there may soon be a lack of medical professionals, they were allowed to return to work on Monday. They’ve been thinking mostly about how their industry is going to deal with the volume of patients. “I think that’s what everyone is worried about,” they said. “We obviously know how to prepare for disasters. It’s what you expect as a health care worker. You can hunker down in the hospital during a hurricane activation, but there’s always an end in sight. With this, there really isn’t one.”
A previous version of this story stated Louisiana does not provide food assistance to felons; the state ended that practice in 2017.