Analysis: Notes from a coronavirus hot spot

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is right outside my door. But I can’t go out. Not much, anyway. My wife and I are self-confined to quarters, working at home and limiting travels to grocery runs and walks with the dogs alongside the St. Charles streetcar tracks.

Streetcars still rumble by, but they are mostly empty, on a route that takes them to the edge of a sedate French Quarter, where Bourbon Street looks like a ghost town.

New Orleans — the New Orleans of parades, crowded bars, leisurely restaurant meals, live music, spring festivals and (non-medical) masking — is gone. At least for now, while we all stay socially distant and watch the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths tick up, wondering if we or one of ours will be in that number.

Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, we are again riding out a crisis while denied the rituals that give us comfort. But this time it’s not because the infrastructure flooded or crumbled. And it’s not because we are evacuated and scattered — scattering options are limited in a pandemic.

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This time, the gang’s all here. But we’re in a coronavirus hotspot. So we can’t gang up.

So second line parades and celebratory remembrances of the recently deceased are forbidden under pain of possible arrest.

Pray if you think it will help, but don’t congregate. Again, criminal charges are a possibility.

And forget that epidemiological nightmare known as the traditional Good Friday crawfish boil. We can’t have people standing shoulder to shoulder eating from a shared pile of shellfish.

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New Orleans, ordinarily, is unique among American cities. But it’s pretty much like the rest of the country now, suffering the COVID economy and the pains of separation from people who may be only six feet away.

“We always hug and kiss each other when we see each other. That’s a New Orleans thing,” says City Council member Jay Banks. “However, this virus has made that simple gesture that we have lived our entire existence by change.”

Once again, we are learning the truth in the old adage about not really appreciating what you have until you can’t have it.

A lot of us didn’t need the reminder. Folks in Manhattan who watched the twin towers go down in 2001, for instance. Or those with homes destroyed in California wildfires. Or those rebuilding after hurricanes like Harvey, Michael, Sandy, Maria, Rita or Katrina.

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When this is over, if we’re lucky, we may also learn, or re-learn, that we don’t know how much we’ve missed something until we get it back.

For example: It used to elevate my blood pressure when I got stuck in traffic slowed by a small parade: a group of Mardi Gras Indians, maybe, or an impromptu neighborhood second-line that, perhaps, didn’t necessarily have the proper permits.

Look, I loved a parade as much as the next guy — as long as I wasn’t inconvenienced.

Then came the levee breaches, floods, death and destruction of 2005. And the fear that the city, and its multitude of cultures, might not bounce back.

Nearly a year later, with the city still stutter-stepping toward normalcy, my wife and I were walking to a neighborhood restaurant when we noticed that evening traffic had come to a standstill.

A block away, there was brass band music, cheers and laughter. Dancing into the intersection were men and women of all ages, in all manner of costumes — tuxedos, tutus, shimmering metallic wigs or top hats or feathery headdresses.

It was a welcome sight. I didn’t realize how welcome until the epiphany hit.

A parade-stranded car idled nearby. The unsmiling driver wore an expression of irritation. Which suddenly struck me as unhappily familiar and wildly inappropriate.

I got choked up — eyes all watery. Just for a few seconds but long enough for my wife to look at me with concern and ask me what was wrong.

And I told her: “I used to hate when this happened.”


EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter holed up in his home in New Orleans.