When I began going through the photos on my phone, it became clear that documentation of my and New Orleans’ experience with coronavirus/quarantine wouldn’t be as complete or effective without a rundown of the very ‘normal’ week that preceded the shutdown so as to demonstrate just how quickly that normalcy crumbled. I suppose it’s a confessional of sorts, as well… it’s really crazy to look back upon the collective denial we seemed to be in; how long it took us to realize how great this threat was and how to respond appropriately.
Monday, March 9th marked the beginning of my second week at a new job I was enjoying considerably, and is also the day the first presumptive case of COVID-19 was reported in Louisiana. The job involved a 20-minute commute to a studio next to the NASA facility in New Orleans East, and while it was unconventional work it gave me a weird and welcome feeling of workplace normalcy for the first time in ages (I’d been a full-time gig worker since last June and a remote employee for the four years before that). However, I was only scheduled two days that week and went home Tuesday feeling some FOMO at the prospect of waiting almost a week before being back on the job with my new colleagues. So imagine my disappointment when three days later the decision was made that our project would go on a ‘three-week hiatus’ due to the virus (though I was sure even then it would be longer).
With abbreviated ‘main gig’ hours, I filled my time and my pockets the rest of the week by returning to my reliable side-gig of rideshare driving. I wore a cheerful buff—a throw from the 2019 Muses parade—as a makeshift face mask. I didn’t suppose it would be terribly effective, but I hoped it might put riders more at ease, knowing full well the better thing to do would be to wipe down my car frequently with disinfectant wipes. Of course, I wasn’t able to find such wipes anywhere; store clerks were less than amused when I asked if they had them. Many passengers expressed appreciation and understanding regarding my precautions. The occasional passenger’s reaction seemed just one step away from mockery, telling me it seemed like ‘overkill.’
Wednesday, March 11 I made a red wine spritzer with Emergen-C I’d nicked from craft services (before I’d even seen any ‘quarantini’ memes suggesting the same!) then went to a trivia night at a packed bar where teams had predictably COVID-19 related names like “I’m Feeling Feverish” and “Don’t Cough on Me.” The host broke out into a fit of laughter when he announced the breaking news that Tom Hanks had been diagnosed with the illness. I failed to see what was so funny.
Thursday, March 12 I went to meet a friend at Tujague’s Restaurant in the Quarter as he finished his shift there. Tujague’s was founded in 1856 and moved to its current location in 1914. Even with the move factored in it is the second-oldest restaurant in the city, making the news that broke last Fall of its forthcoming relocation a few blocks down Decatur a sad development to many. I sipped a French pinot noir and enjoyed a fried green tomato with shrimp remoulade as I watched the news that the Dow Jones had had a worse day even than 1987’s Black Monday. Still, I wasn’t predicting that I was in the unlikely position of having the downstairs bar to myself on what may be the last Thursday the restaurant will have been open in its historic location.
Friday, March 13 Governor John Bel Edwards declared a State of Emergency for the State of Louisiana, ordered schools closed for a month, and prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people; meaning the St. Patrick’s Day parade and related activities that had been planned for the weekend were canceled. I photographed a rehearsal dinner at the Napoleon House. There were numerous elderly people in attendance, and even more guests who had traveled by air to attend the festivities. There was hand sanitizer conspicuously left out near the guestbook; everyone I was introduced instinctively still went to shake my hand.
Saturday, March 14 I photographed an engagement at City Park, where many groups of people had gathered to enjoy the beautiful weather. NOPD also had to break up large St. Patrick’s Day gatherings at popular Irish pubs like Tracy’s. The first death in Louisiana, that of a 58-year-old Orleans Parish resident with underlying health conditions, was reported.
Sunday, March 15 was a good friend’s birthday. The social media shaming was beginning to sink in, and I decided that regardless of government-imposed rules (or the lack thereof, at that point) it was going to be my last hurrah. Even in the course of being out that night I remember attempting to take well-intended but surely ineffective—laughable, even—measures to distance myself from other bar-goers. We went to Good Friends Bar for the free bubbly they give on birthdays and sat far from the handful of others on the balcony. We walked along the river to Drago’s for charbroiled oysters and sat at the otherwise-empty bar. (Not especially relevant, but a funny New Orleans moment: On the way down Saint Ann we passed a man on a stoop who ribbed my friend for the lack of funds he’d racked up on his traditional birthday safety pin: “Dang boy, that’s messed up! You got two girls with you but only one dollar bill!”).
Finally, we took an Uber to Chickie Wah Wah to catch Nick Moss Band’s “NOLA Harmonica Festival” with Jason Ricci, Johnny Sansone, and Dennis Gruenling. When the band took the stage after a set break at 11 o’clock, they announced it would be their last set of the night: an order had just gone into effect that bars had to shut down at midnight. “This might just be the last live show in New Orleans for awhile!”, they said, as though making a joke, but it felt more like a premonition. It was. The next day, Governor Edwards put a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and shut down most public gathering spaces. Quarantine in New Orleans had finally (but still, so suddenly, it seemed!) begun.