NEW ORLEANS — Virgil Tiller is back to work on Thursday nights, playing his saxophone with the Stooges Brass Band at The Well, a small club located at the edge of the city’s Tremé neighborhood, about five blocks from the French Quarter.
Though Mr. Tiller, 44, is vaccinated against Covid-19, he has bandmates and many faithful fans who aren’t. That makes him acutely aware of the public-health dynamics of the room. “We’re blowing all kind of stuff into the air and you’re dancing in it,” he said, only halfway joking.
Still, as soon as the first horn sounds, the malaise and worries of the pandemic disappear. “The music takes me to a different place,” he told me. “It’s therapeutic.”
Things then quickly revert for him when they wrap for the night — conscious again that he is standing indoors with people greeting each other with a hug or a kiss and everybody talking, close. He doesn’t mingle: “I just go to my truck and drive home.”
After nearly 16 months of conscientiously following social distance measures, mingling in close quarters doesn’t feel quite right. Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Department of Health, perhaps unsurprisingly, relates to Mr. Tiller’s wariness. “Anytime we have large crowds, it still gives me heartburn,” she said. “I feel that way even if I’m watching a movie that was made before 2020.”
Anxiety is rising throughout the country as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus takes hold, spurring a troubling uptick in new severe cases and hospitalizations. But there’s a special uneasiness unique to cities like New Orleans, highly dependent on close contact, not just economically but culturally and spiritually as well.
“We are a socially gathering community,” said Angela Chalk, who leads the nonprofit Healthy Community Services, which focuses on urban farming and storm water management. “Friday fish fries, birthdays, weddings, funerals — just sitting on our front stoops, eating and drinking to pass the time.”
The bulk of business revenue (and tax revenue) here stems from the tourism, leisure, food and hospitality industries. Without them, the town is adrift. But the idea of pushing forward with a full reopening in the face of viral variants is causing jitters. Contact-heavy economies like those in New Orleans barely made it through the pandemic. Now, visitors are flooding in to burn off steam, eager to spend, and to forget — something that could undoubtedly resuscitate the vibe of the city or, possibly, go horribly wrong.
In the wake of a ninefold increase in coronavirus cases, primarily among the unvaccinated, Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a news conference on Wednesday at which she ordered an “indoor mask advisory” for all city residents spending time indoors with people who aren’t members of their immediate household.
The new advisory, while not a mandate, throws into question some aspects of nightlife. But city public health officials feel equipped to address it, in part, with more tailored messaging. (In December, the rap and bounce star Big Freedia made a video for the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, mocking people whose masks slipped to the chin or hung off one ear when dancing: “You don’t wear it right, well, you ain’t doin’ nothing,” she said.) Dr. Avegno believes the new advisory, if followed, along with stepped-up vaccination efforts, could tamp down the surge: “If we do this, this wonderful fall — our festivals, our football and everything we want to do — it will proceed as planned.”
For now, most social plans remain tenuously in place. Mr. Tiller and the rest of the Stooges, along with dozens of other acts, including the Rolling Stones, are set to play in front of thousands as New Orleans goes into a seasonal hyper-drive, hosting a few big spring festivals currently rescheduled for the fall. The three-day French Quarter Fest runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. And it will be swiftly followed by the two-weekend, seven-day New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: an annual home to swirling crowds of revelers sharing mouthwatering bites from food vendors and dancing in sweaty scrums to hundreds of musical performances in tents and on stages at the Fairgrounds, the nation’s third-oldest racetrack.
In a mere month, the New Orleans Saints football season kicks off with two back-to-back home games in the Superdome on Sep. 12 and 19. The dome, which can feel like the true cathedral of the state’s sports-crazed congregation, seats 73,000. And the franchise is expecting full capacity.
During the worst of the pandemic, hotel occupancies dropped into the single digits. So, this busy autumn will bring much desired cooler weather and could provide a much-needed jump-start for the city’s beleaguered tourism industry. But the events’ collective 1.5 million estimated visitors, coming together from around the country (including the much-less-vaccinated Deep South), will surely test the balance of post-lockdown public health protocols.
Within New Orleans about 68 percent of adults have gotten at least one vaccine dose, a point or two above the national average. Still, “We know that we are at risk,” Dr. Avegno told me. “Because we’re a destination city.”
Delta variant aside, the city was already pushing for some protections to remain in place. Festival organizers who are planning on full-capacity crowds, for instance, must either mandate mask-wearing or ask for proof of vaccination, according to the city. How that order will be enforced, in practice, is an open question. And the idea of crowds standing in drizzle — and it always (at least) drizzles — shifting in muddy grounds, shouting singalong hits together with surgical masks, is hard to imagine.
So far, the uptick in cases hasn’t slowed the city down: It’s largely been back to its let-the-good-times-roll “laissez les bons temps” attitude (despite the scorching summer temperatures laced with subtropical humidity). Bourbon Street is frequently packed. Hotel rooms are filling up, with 80 percent occupancy on some weekends. Talk to a few barkeeps and they’ll tell you some local watering holes are feeling like their old selves again. Independent eateries that not too long ago were “ghost kitchens” are back to sautéing shrimp and crab and serving up hundreds of bowls of okra gumbo in their own dining rooms.
On Monday, the nursery where Mr. Tiller’s youngest son is enrolled shut down because another child there had tested positive for the virus. So on Thursday morning, he called his bandleader to see if that night’s gig was still on. It was. And the club was full by the middle of the evening, with many guests still unmasked.
Locals who have become hypervigilant when it comes to public health have cringed as they’ve watched the city reopen. It reminded them of the pandemic’s initial months here in 2020, when the virus came to our coast during Mardi Gras, still undetected, leading to a death rate that was at one point the highest in the globe, ravaging the city’s Black community in particular.
Bethany Bultman, the head of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic — which helps provide health care, meals and mental health services to the city’s culture bearers — shudders thinking back to that superspreader event. She told me she worries that too many in the city are prioritizing the social lives of “unmasked, unvaccinated hordes of walking wallets” over the lives of her clients.
That tension, between the providers of merriment and some recipients of it, has always been in the background in artistic communities like New Orleans. But the conversations about essential work during the pandemic put it front and center.
In eastern New Orleans, Le-Ann Williams, a 30-year-old restaurant manager, spent the past week under blankets, suffering from body aches and fever as she dealt with a freshly diagnosed case of coronavirus. “How they open the city back up and this is still out there?” she asked in frustration. Now, she’s trying to determine how her family of three will survive without her paycheck while she stays put at home for the required 14-day quarantine.
In response to situations like the one Ms. Williams is facing, one local restaurateur, Donald Link, has taken the step of offering all of his staff paid sick leave — a largely unheard-of benefit in the low-wage industry, particularly in this region. “When Covid came around, we realized how important sick pay was. Because we know people will come to work sick to save money,” he told me. Mr. Link, who is 52, runs six popular local restaurants with his partners: Peche, Cochon, Herbsaint, Cochon Butcher, Gianna and Boulangerie.
Waiters out sick at any of these locations are paid $15 an hour. Starting pay for line cooks has also been boosted from $14 an hour to $18. (While Mr. Link doesn’t offer health insurance, all hourly workers are eligible for vacation pay, parental leave and 401(k) matches.)
“I never had a vacation day or health insurance when I was coming up in this business 37 years ago,” Mr. Link said when I asked him why he’s created this more generous, costly benefits package. “But I just wanna be better at it. I want to make it a real job.”
In the face of utility cutoffs and looming evictions once the federal moratorium ends, there are new fights for economic equity emerging in this town, for decades one of America’s most unequal. Mr. Tiller mentioned to me, with casual sorrow, that right now some of his neighborhood friends can’t afford the cover charges at the bars he plays.
Musicians themselves, meanwhile, are turning down gigs that pay “a sandwich and tips,” as the local singer Arséne DeLay put it, and instead demanding money that will help them keep up with their regular bills, especially since Louisiana is ending boosted pandemic unemployment benefits at the end of this month. “It’s about to get next-level dire,” she said.
A small group of well-liked brass bands have formed a coalition, agreeing that they won’t parade for less than $5,000. Because of those fees, some smaller social aid and pleasure clubs may sit out this year, said Leon Anderson, Jr., the 38-year-old president of the Valley of Silent Men, the club that kicks off the street-filling “second-line season” each year at the end of August. “Plus, the pandemic is picking up,” he told me, reminding me that some of his members were in their 70s. “So even if we had the money, we might sit out on a precautionary level.”
Travis Lyons, the 53-year-old president of the Perfect Gentleman club, also isn’t in love with the new pay rates, apparently a $2,000 jump from 2019: “Those are some big numbers. And a lot of people’s money isn’t back.” Still, he said, “We know we need a band.”
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