Tales From the Front: New Orleans in the Era of Covid-19

Royal Street, Closed Business with graffiti, Bywater district, April 2020 | © Chris Lawson 2020

Night falls on New Orleans.

It’s 8:30 p.m. and down the block, a guy strums his guitar and sings “I’m gonna wash that social distancing right out of my hair”.  I can’t make out the next, quieter part of his song until I hear “Will anything ever be fucking normal again?”

I was texting with my friend Eileen last Thursday. She asked me how I was holding up in the time of Covid-19.

I told her my days weren’t all bad…at all. Sometimes kind of lonely but there are plenty of projects and things to work on. I told her I’ve had relatively long stretches of time when I didn’t even think about the virus.

Halfway into a particularly compelling podcast (“Root of Evil”) I absolutely did not think about the virus even once for 20 (maybe 25) minutes. But the overall feeling is a pervasive kind of…”Surreality?” offered Eileen.

Yes.

Very much so. 


Bourbon Street, Outside Cat’s Meow, April 2020 | © Chris Lawson 2020

There is still a flurry of people out walking/running, doing errands, “making groceries” throughout the day.

Those people do seem to be observing social distancing, more or less, but they definitely are not all at home. When the sun sets, however, it’s a different story. 

The Louisiana numbers on nola.com‘s dashboard are bleak.

Covid-19 is still spreading here, and ravaging the African American population in particular. Here are today’s numbers (it’s April 22nd as I write this):

Over 25,000 confirmed cases.

Although the real number is much, much higher than that. Almost 1,500 people have died (and that number is not accurate either). And 1,747 people are in hospitals, with medical services near capacity in many parishes.

Also sobering-  the virus has spread well beyond Orleans, Jefferson, and St. John the Baptist parishes. Up and down the Mississippi River, 13 parishes now count among the 50 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita death rate, as of last week. In the ten days after the first case in New Orleans, the number of individuals with Covid-19 grew faster in Louisiana than anywhere else in the world.

Full disclosure: I was not at home -or work- last Friday. I went to Audubon Park. The park was as crowded as any normal spring Saturday.  77 degrees, sunny, blue skies. Walking the park’s perimeter trail, I came upon a stout woman with nine dogs on a sophisticated leash apparatus.

She had three Scottish Terriers, two Pitbulls, and smaller breeds I wasn’t familiar with. I stopped and said hello, and asked her if she could tell me what kind of dogs the small ones were. She replied, “I’m a professional dog trainer, I’m happy to answer your questions, but -first-off- I’m gonna ask you to stand six feet away from me.” I was at least ten or twelve feet away from her, but you can feel folk’s fear and apprehension here. It’s everywhere, and it’s palpable. I learned about a couple of dog breeds previously unknown to me, but won’t be returning to the park anytime soon. It’s too crowded.

“I’m a professional dog trainer, I’m happy to answer your questions, but -first-off- I’m gonna ask you to stand six feet away from me.”


Night-time is different. Early evening and only a few people are going to the corner store, going for take-out, and walking for fun/running for exercise. And by 9:30 p.m. the streets are nearly empty.  The majority of restaurants and businesses have closed, some permanently. Many are now boarded-up. Most of New Orleanians are in their homes by 9:30, and there is an un-reality in seeing the French Quarter shut down, Magazine Street and Canal Street empty, and mostly empty buses and streetcars rolling down mostly deserted streets. Over the past two weeks, I’ve taken nightly breaks from work, walked around (briefly), and taken pictures of this sudden and eerie ghost town. Trying to convey what it’s like to be alone – block after block after block –  in what is perhaps the most social of all U.S. cities.
It is indeed surreal.

Most of New Orleanians are in their homes by 9:30, and there is an un-reality in seeing the French Quarter shut down, Magazine Street and Canal Street empty, and mostly empty buses and streetcars rolling down mostly deserted streets


New Orleans won’t always be here. The water is surely coming.
Eventually, many of us will have to leave or at least choose to. But we’re here now. 


Bourbon Street, Preservation Jazz Hall, April 2020 | © Chris Lawson 2020



We’re here, and we will abide, through and with the enormous sadness of Covid-19. It used to be “Do you know anyone who has it?” Now it’s “How many people do you know who have died?” New Orleanians expect hard times. Those expectations have been confirmed often enough
so that folks here know how to ride through rough passages. That’s what they do here. That’s what we’re doing now.

It used to be “Do you know anyone who has it?” Now it’s “How many people do you know who have died?

The streets are empty at midnight. I’ve literally walked seven blocks through the heart of the French Quarter and haven’t seen anyone. Then a black man on a bicycle turns onto the street and rides in my direction. When he sees me he shouts out “You doing okay?”

Strangers aren’t strangers in New Orleans. We speak to each other like we’ve already been friends. I tell him I’m doing okay, and how are you? He says “I’m making it”. 

At the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon Street he rides right past me and says “Promise me something”. 

I say “I promise…but what am I promising haha?” 

He smiles at me and says “Promise me you’ll have a good weekend.” 

“I promise I’ll try,” I say, and watch as he rides off into the night.

I feel momentarily buoyed-up, a little uncertain but almost resolutely okay. I turn the corner.  Another moment of the new-normal strangeness. I’m standing on Bourbon Street on a Saturday night, the third Saturday of April 2020, and I’m the only person as far as the eye can see.


Chris Lawson is an artist, writer, and youth advocate/mentor living in New Orleans. His visual art has recently been on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone and the Manhattan Poetry Review.