- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — The scattered handfuls of people surveying the French Quarter, now boarded up like a deserted movie set, wondered whether the city was enduring a slow-motion Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s kind of like Katrina, but Katrina whacked us and left,” said Ann Breaux, who lives on Orleans Avenue a couple of blocks from Bourbon Street. “This thing just stays and keeps beating us.”

Indeed, New Orleans and Louisiana are enduring one of the highest per-capita rates of coronavirus infection since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, late last year and then spread around the globe. As of Wednesday at noon, Louisiana had 1,795 confirmed cases and 65 deaths.

Until this week, more than half of Louisiana’s cases were in New Orleans’ home of Orleans Parish, which ranked as the sixth worst hit county in the U.S., after five counties in New York. On Wednesday, President Trump declared the state a disaster area.

In the aftermath of Katrina in 2005, soldiers of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division patrolled the area around the French Quarter. Now, the National Guard has set up camp in Armstrong Park on the Quarter’s northern edge, but a traffic sign outside the Municipal Auditorium flashed at midday Tuesday “no more testing today.”

The French Quarter was even emptier this week than it was after Katrina. Up and down Bourbon Street, businesses have pulled their wooden shutters tight, few people stroll the narrow sidewalks and every now and then a car creeps slowly down toward Esplanade Avenue as if on a disaster tourism drive.

The city hasn’t lost power this time, however. Bright neon signs still advertise “the Hand Grenade, New Orleans’ Most Powerful Drink.”

Across the corner from one of the bars, an electronic bass and drum line beckoned from the Funky 544 Rhythm & Blues, but all was dark inside and the lone man sitting at the bar ignored a tapping at the window.

“I’m just shaking my head trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Meka Jackson, a masked woman pushing her 2-year-old daughter, Amiracle, in a stroller outside the Funky 544. “I’m not even sure if I want to stay in New Orleans or not.”

Ms. Jackson has two other children in an apartment off Esplanade, she said, and she was happy to report that the few people she encountered were kind.

“That lady treated me so nice,” she said, waving her hand back over the deserted blocks toward Canal Street. “She just gave me some lunch.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell closed down bars and dine-in restaurant service and on Friday expanded her edict to a shelter-in-place order for New Orleans. Gov. John Bel Edwards, joining about 20 other states, issued the same decree for all of Louisiana around midnight Monday.

“It is what it is. Stay at home, work from home when you can, only go out for essential services,” Ms. Cantrell said Friday at what The New Orleans Advocate described as a “fiery” press conference.

Madison Orey, an operating room nurse, pedaled down Bourbon Street with her husband, David Dufour, on Tuesday. The couple live in Treme, which abuts the French Quarter’s northeastern corner. They had rented light blue bicycles through Uber.

The couple took a scheduled vacation to Chicago last week. They arrived on March 16 only to find the city shut down, so they turned around and drove back to their hometown, which promptly closed.

“It’s eerie,” Mr. Dufour said. “You figure if this was just a Cat 2 storm, they’d still be partying.”

“We’re basically living on the Northshore now,” said Ms. Orey, referring to the leafy suburbs across Lake Pontchartrain.

Ms. Cantrell’s order meant an end to even the smattering of businesses that stayed open after Katrina. Johnny White’s Sports Bar at the corner of Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue never closed back then, and it became a watering hole for trapped drifters, out-of-town rescue workers and locals.

Ms. Breaux stood with her dog, Annie, outside the pub as she surveyed the intersection. The steeple of St. Louis Cathedral loomed over a deserted cityscape.

She said she has been stopping by a private post office box she keeps on Bourbon Street a few blocks past the normally surging tourist stretch and finds some human interaction from time to time. 

The French Quarter’s sprawling residential sections are also quiet despite the glorious spring weather.

Nevertheless, some city residents have a feeling that the Quarter will never fully sleep. Blocks away, in a Mid-City neighborhood, Niya Ramsey, 26, nodded knowingly when asked about it.

“Oh, Bourbon’s still open. There’s certain places you can go,” said Ms. Ramsey, who lives in eastern New Orleans but has some bartending friends. “I’m actually glad the city is taking precautions, but they need to hit it even harder.”


• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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