Lagniappe’s three lead writers report on their experiences during the lockdown.
By Brad Goins
Until mid-March, I’d followed the coronavirus story in a curious, and entirely casual, manner. I felt no sense of panic. I had no desire to go shopping for toilet paper. I washed my hands when I thought of it. But mostly, I just used hand sanitizer.
Everything changed abruptly on Friday, March 13, when coronavirus suddenly became a tangible force that demanded my attention and kept me unsettled all through the day.
In the morning office email, there were notices of the cancellation of several local events, including some of long standing and with big reputations. The number of cancellations grew at a steady pace. By the end of the work day, I’d filled three pages of paper from note pads with lists of public gatherings that wouldn’t take place and couldn’t be mentioned in the pages of Lagniappe.
As the unusual day progressed, there came the news that Gov. Edwards had proclaimed that gatherings of more than 250 people would not take place.
Since its beginning, Lagniappe has run a calendar section. For many years now, it’s been called “What’s Happening?” It includes both a series of short descriptions of upcoming events and a day-by-day calendar of events taking place in the next two-week period.
But with the long list of cancellations I already had, and with the 250 figure in my head, I had to start second-guessing most of the material in our calendar section. For instance, I wondered whether Jack Daniel’s at L’Auberge accommodated 250.
The atmosphere on Friday the 13th was frenetic — a little stressful, but also exciting. Things had calmed down a little by Monday the 15th. But it always looked as if more, not less, would be cancelled. It was on Monday that we heard the astonishing news that gaming areas of the casinos would close by midnight. Because of the 250 person limit, we knew the big acts wouldn’t be performing. But what about restaurants and bars in the casinos? Would they stay open? Would the acts they had booked perform? (During the day, Gov. Edwards announced that all Louisiana restaurants would be able to sell food by take out or delivery only.)
By the morning of Tuesday, March 17 — the day we went to press — our calendar of events was starting to look pretty useless. It was obvious we weren’t going to be able to assure readers that any of the events in our calendar would definitely take place. For the first time, Lagniappe would have no calendar. Instead, we’d have a note explaining why it was impossible to predict what would happen in the Lake Area in the next two weeks.
Things continued to change at a steady pace. Within a week, I was working by myself in the office with both the front and back doors locked. On Sunday, March 22, Gov. Edwards issued a Stay At Home Order for the state of Louisiana.
It took a while, but I gradually began to notice changes on the street. One day, I passed the Sherman Williams Paint store and noticed that a man was sitting at a table in front of the establishment. Customers were no longer being allowed in. The man at the table took the o
rder, then had the cans of paint (and so forth) brought outside to the customers.
After a while, I noticed that the rate of street traffic was starting to tick down. At a certain point one afternoon, I saw not one vehicle — in either direction — on Prien Lake Road. At about the same time, I came to the intersection of Common and College and didn’t see one vehicle in any of the four directions. (This was at about 4 pm.)
After a few days — was it my imagination? — I got the feeling the traffic was starting to tick back up. About this time, I saw a fascinating CNN report filed by a correspondent with a British accent. He started his report at 7th Avenue in Manhattan. The camera revealed a couple of pedestrians walking — apart, not together — on each side of the street. Each pedestrian wore a mask. There may have been a vehicle on the avenue, but I don’t remember seeing any.
The reporter then got on the NYC subway. There were people in his subway car. But it was nowhere near half full. Each person was standing and each wore a mask.
The reporter then got out of the subway in the heart of Times Square — about a block in front of the Times Building. There were four or five pedestrians (all wearing masks) widely scattered about. Four or five drivers were waiting at a traffic light two or three blocks away. That was it for vehicular traffic in Times Square. It was straight up noon.
The reporter noted that these odd-looking scenes of vacancy resembled shots in horror movies in which the populace has abandoned a massive urban area because it is under the threat of a giant monster or a zombie attack.
A few days later, I noticed that the traffic on Common Street absolutely dwarfed anything to be seen on 7th Avenue or in Times Square in Manhattan. One Facebook poster claimed that the traffic on University Avenue looked exactly as it did on any other day. There were stories of lines of vehicles backing up down streets as the drivers waited for their pick-up bags of boiled shrimp. I saw one of these lines myself.
There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of overlap with the “Stay Home. Save Lives.” message one saw repeatedly on Facebook. Sheriff Tony Mancuso prepared a video in which he congratulated the population of Calcasieu Parish for keeping the crime rate down during a pandemic. He noted his office was actually receiving a below-average number of calls.
But he did politely suggest that the populace do a better job of staying at home; of not going out “in public.”
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter was somewhat more direct in comments he made on April 7:
“We would like to take a moment to say thank you to our citizens who have taken the calls for social distancing and limited social interactions seriously.
“We know it’s not easy for those of us who call Southwest Louisiana home. A place where family is defined by more than just blood, we find peace and healing when we gather together around a pile of steaming boiled crawfish or fresh-off-the-grill BBQ.
“As we move closer to a long holiday [Easter] weekend, [I ask] you all to remain vigilant.
“Please continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines and avoid the urge to have large gatherings of family and friends. There will be plenty of time for that to come. But for now we have to all do our part to Stop The Spread.”
The coroner, Dr. Terry Welke, was of a like mind when he wrote on the same day:
“Presently, there has been a total of 5 deaths in Calcasieu Parish due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, I am sure that number is going to continue to rise, as too many individuals are not following Gov. Edwards’ stay-at-home order. Our area could become the next ‘hot spot.’ Help all our heroes on the front lines do their part by staying home! If you have to leave, maintain social distancing of 6 feet. I don’t want to fill out any other death certificates related to COVID-19 …” (Within a week, he would fill out 20 more.”)
While all of this was going on, the COVID-19 rate in New York was finally starting to level off. On the other hand, Louisiana had the highest rate of increase in COVID-19 infection of any place in the world. That’s right — in the world. And the fact was reported around the world.
As of the day I wrote this — April 7 — I had not seen one person in Southwest Louisiana wearing a mask. (I admit, I hadn’t worn one yet, either. I’m not the type to try to start a trend.)
As the dozens of vehicles zipped by on Common Street, I wondered whether even the specter of old grim death could sway Southwest Louisianans to give up their passions for drive-thru and nonstop socializing.
All along, the experts had been saying that the bulk of Louisiana infection had come from East Baton Rouge and, in particular, New Orleans. The Grim Reaper did seem to have made a serious impression in the Crescent City. An April 4 drone flyover of the downtown, Bourbon Street and other local landmarks and boulevards showed streets that were even more desolate than those of Times Square.
There was another notable hot spot in Louisiana, and it was close to home — in Oakdale. For whatever reason, the prison in Oakdale had more deaths from COVID-19 than any other prison in the U.S.: a total of six as of April 13. Strange days indeed.
On the other hand, Louisiana didn’t need to be too hard on itself. This state had at least tried to get ahead of the disease. All around us, there were those who had not. The governor of Florida waited until April 2 to declare a lockdown of his state. The kindergarten governor of Georgia, Brian B. Kemp, announced a lock-down because he had learned “in the last 24 hours” that people with COVID-19 don’t always show symptoms. But just three days later, he took the mind-boggling step of opening the state’s beaches. Surely they hadn’t been watching Jaws in the preschool he was attending.
Meanwhile, the Texas governor still had not issued a lockdown order at all. But it had closed its border — to Louisianans. It was that super-high rate of Louisiana infection. At last word, non-commercial drivers who came from Louisiana to the border of Texas had the option to turn around or to fill out a 14-day quarantine form then proceed into the state.
Even in the healthiest of times, Lake Charles has only a few pedestrians. During the lockdown, I was one of them. As a member of the media, I was an essential worker. I was also essential in that I maintained the media (that is, the Lagniappe) office by myself.
Each morning I took the short walk to the office then locked myself in. The sign on the front door said that anyone could get assistance by calling the office number, but no one ever called for assistance. I got a couple of business calls and a dozen robocalls daily.
It was comforting to work with my music playing all day and to be free from the sound of other human voices. I could be exactly as busy as I wanted to be. Since I had no idea when we would publish again, I just tried to put together as many stories as I could so we’d have plenty to work with when we did go back to press.
I focused on the coronavirus. Community institutions did a good job of sending press releases about whom citizens could contact to get various kinds of information and help during the lockdown. Especially useful were the daily emails of the Chamber Southwest, which always sent the latest directives from Baton Rouge about assistance for individuals and small businesses. Perhaps even more important was the Chamber’s daily running list of all the restaurants that were serving take-out or providing delivery.
Covering COVID-19 was completely different from covering Hurricane Rita. For me, COVID-19 was almost entirely a cyber event. Whatever I learned about it, I learned from the internet. I couldn’t go out and explore it with my senses as I could the wreckage of Rita. And while that wreckage was on a massive scale, it could be sensed and grasped; one could take it in. Months into COVID-19, the amount we still didn’t know about the epidemic was as great as the amount we did.
One interesting morning, I did get to see something distinctive in person shortly after 8 am on the Friday before Easter. At the Honey B Ham on Prien Lake Road there were vehicles everywhere. They spilled over into nearby parking lots and streets. A few just sat on Prien Lake Road.
People were standing in a line that seemed to stretch the length of a block. There was also a small crowd that clustered together in the front of the Honey B Ham parking lot. According to subsequent Facebook posts, the whole thing had something to do with a sale of live crawfish. I can’t say for certain that is the case. At any rate, it looked like reckless and dangerous behavior to me because of the failure to practice safe distancing. But none of it surprised me at all.
This happened at the end of what we were told would be the most “horrible” week in the country. No less a person than the president of the U.S. had predicted that. One prognosticator said the week would be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
The only major change I noticed in my personal life was the revelation that groceries ordered on Wednesday would not be delivered until Saturday.
While the week may have been horrible for some, on Wall Street, some folks were partying. A MarketWatch headline described it succinctly: “16 million people just got laid off but U.S. stocks had their best week in 45 years.”
MarketWatch’s Andrea Riquier tried to explain what was happening; she wrote:
“First, it’s important to note that many strategists think markets haven’t fully grasped the scope of the devastation the coronavirus will wreak on the economy, let alone the human toll. And for now, the unprecedented actions by the Federal Reserve and other central banks are helping keep investors numb.
“‘Stocks are up because the damage to the economy — evident in claims — is beyond comprehension, while the response of the Fed is easier to understand,’ wrote Chris Low, chief economist for FHN Financial …”
In short, Wall Street had been hit by a double whammy of denial and wishful thinking. That’s always a potent and dangerous combination.
Easter weekend came and went. Of course, on the following Monday, it was too early to know whether the many family barbecues and crawfish boils were petri dishes. But when the Monday report came out, we did know that the COVID death total in Calcasieu Parish had more than doubled — going from five to 13. The total number of cases reported in the parish was 433. (As was the case everywhere, totals didn’t include people who had the virus but hadn’t been tested for it.)
Gov. Edwards joined the we-could-be-doing-better-at-staying-home bandwagon in a statement he released on April 14. In part, it read:
“I did fly to and from North Louisiana yesterday [to see the damage of the Monroe tornadoes] over some of our major highways. I did see more traffic than, quite frankly, I expected to see or wanted to see … And we also have some social distancing apps now that are kind of assigning letter grades and we weren’t doing particularly well to begin with. I think our state was graded at a C or a C minus. I believe we moved down to a D most recently because they’re using the GPS data in people’s phones to kind of measure what the movement is. And that’s why I’m trying to make sure that people understand that COVID-19 remains in every community. It is obviously fatal for a number of people.”
The governor did convey the very positive message that “we are administering more tests per capita than any other state in the nation.”
A national concensus developed that most businesses in most states would reopen — at least in a modified form — on May 1. There was a great deal of speculation about whether Gov. Edwards, being a Democrat, would extend Louisiana’s opening date until May 15. When he did, there was surprisingly little debate about it (at least in SWLA).
Come May 15, local businesses wasted no time getting back in action, with L’Auberge providing a tab on its home page early in the morning for those who wanted to make reservations for May 15.
State government released very detailed instructions about what measures each type of business should take to ensure safe distancing and mask wearing — even providing diagrams of where dining room tables should be placed in relation to each other. Now how many of the individual businesses will follow these instructions is, I think, anybody’s guess.
A BROKEN CHAIN
My Most Vivid COVID Memory Isn’t My Unruly Hair — It’s Empty Store Shelves • By Karla Wall
My co-workers and I spent the second and third weeks of March keeping each other updated on breaking news reports on the emerging coronavirus crisis.
“There’s a case in Washington.”
“There’s an outbreak at a nursing home in Washington.”
It seemed surreal and, even at that point, distant. Until:
“There are cases in the New Orleans area.”
“Calcasieu has its first case.”
“The restaurants have been ordered to shut down.”
“The governor has closed schools statewide.”
And finally: “There’s a stay-at-home order.”
What followed for me was what followed for most people. Feeling like I was living in an episode of the Twilight Zone, I caught up with housework, completed some many-times-delayed projects around the house and in the yard, and began to notice that I was eating a whole lot more than I normally do.
“What I did on my lockdown” was pretty much the same story everyone else can tell.
But the one thing that will stay with me as long as I live was what I experienced when I headed to the store the first morning of my “staycation.” It was a Friday, and I was out and about around 8 am. Plenty early enough, I thought, to avoid the rush I had heard all of the area stores were experiencing.
I went to a local store known for its meat selection and headed back to the meat counters to find a roast and perhaps some chicken to make dinners that would feed us for a few days each. I reached the back of the store and stopped cold.
The meat shelves were empty. Not so much as a single pack of chicken breasts to be seen.
The sight chilled me. I had seen photos of the empty stores in Russia during the cold war. I’d seen photos of the Great Depression and heard my grandparents’ stories of life during that era.
But empty shelves? In a city the size of Lake Charles? In 2020? It was a sight I had never expected to see in my lifetime.
It began to hit home that the supply chain was broken down, and might not be repaired soon. Truck drivers couldn’t haul goods if they couldn’t stop at convenience stores. Meat couldn’t be processed and packaged if workers were sick or ordered to stay at home.
This, as the saying goes, was gettin’ real.
And I wasn’t even looking for toilet paper or paper towels yet.
I ran into a former co-worker as I headed back to the store’s entrance. She told me that another store reportedly had meat left on the shelves. She looked as panicked as I felt. I did manage to find my roast, but that feeling of panic lingered. Like most of us, I had never taken the time to think about how dependent we all are on an intricate chain of suppliers and carriers that, when broken, can leave an entire nation of people vulnerable.
Just as my grandparents had a strong appreciation for saving and avoiding wasting after the depression, I have a new respect for the hunreds of thousands of people who keep us fed and make it possible for all of us to be able to walk into a store and pick up the necessities of modern life.
STAY AT HOME
A Millennial Living Through An Unprecedented Global Disaster• By Kerri Cooke
It seems it’s been five years since we were excited to transition into the new decade. As a lover of vintage style and all things art deco, I was looking forward to pretending I was living in the Gatsby era, but with technology; give me all the beaded dresses, the jazz, the excessive luxury.
I channeled my inner Daisy Buchanan when I attended a wedding in New Orleans shortly after Christmas and shortly before 2020. Three months later, NOLA became one of the biggest hotspots for COVID-19 and my excitement over 2020 was cut short. Instead of partying like it was 1925, we were in our homes wearing pajamas day after day.
I’ve lived through 9/11 and the Great Recession. Both events were national disasters. However, this pandemic is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The world basically closed for business.
One of the first places to be shut down was the movie theater, right at the beginning of the big movie season. Disney’s Mulan, Marvel’s Black Widow and DC’s Wonder Woman, all expected to be big hits, had their release dates postponed.
The Olympic Games were rescheduled for 2021, and Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II. Weddings were either postponed or have taken place without the guests; well-wishers were unable to visit grief-stricken families; and graduations have been rescheduled. The COVID-19 pandemic is the single largest inconvenience in modern history.
While people have lost their jobs and their lives, the majority of the country, and most of the rest of the world, has been asked to do one thing — stay home. It seems like such a simple task. We can binge watch shows, read, spend time with our families, garden, sleep in, cook, do housework, get in touch with our inner-crafter, etc. So, why is it such a hard thing to do?
In America, where we have a convenience mentality, it has hit us pretty hard to have to stay home. Many people are so used to going full speed ahead all the time that this forced period of rest can be either welcome or stressful.
Over time, the stay-at-home order affects mental health, even with individuals who generally have sunny personalities. After all, we are social beings. Not being able to see others and move about freely seems to be in opposition to the concept of our free country. And our brains seem to be wired to want what we can’t have at any particular moment — when we’re at work we want to be home, but when we’re at home we want to be at work … or at least cruising the town.
For myself, the first few days of the stay-at-home order were fine. However, after the state extended the order again, I began to feel restless. It wasn’t boredom. I have many hobbies and know how to keep myself busy. But I felt like a hermit. Living in the country, I have the benefit of a big yard. But it’s not so great when it comes to seeing people, especially at a distance. In Lake Charles you can walk around and still maintain social distancing while seeing people. In the country, social distancing is a way of life.
As I live with a mother who is in the riskiest age group, I have been extremely conscious of where I go, whom I see and what I do. Just think how many people these hard actions of ours have saved. The grief we have spared families is nothing compared to the “difficulty” of staying home.
Another factor I found hard was not dressing up or putting make-up on for an extended period of time. I became lax in my daily habits and in return felt only half myself.
Also, this was my first Easter to miss Sunday church. As Easter is a celebration holiday, not being able to do something special on the day was a big downer. With nothing to look forward to and still weeks of quarantine left to go, I became emotionally drained.
As I opted not to do my normal counseling during the shutdown as I prefer face-to-face sessions, there were not many ways to get my feelings out in a constructive manner. The feeling of this ongoing crisis lasting forever began to weigh me down. I tried to combat the feeling by doing creative activities and taking walks outside in my yard.
One thing that was encouraging for me was being reminded on social media that however you were feeling during the stay-at-home order, it was OK. Don’t focus on what you’re not getting done or put pressure on yourself for feeling as if you should handle the situation better. Do the best you can, and that’s enough.
There were days I caught up on reading — this was a great time for escapism stories — and days where it was hard for me to get up and get moving. I already struggle against the winter blues because of the cold weather and lack of sunshine. Spring is my favorite season because life comes back to the earth. Tree buds open up, flowers bloom and everything feels right again. The stay-at-home order seemed to have caused an extension of the winter blues, as we could not go out and enjoy spring as we normally do. Yes, we could go to some parks, but we couldn’t go on road trips or visit gardens or outdoor venues before the unbearable heat of summer comes upon us.
As a creative person, I was able to get some of my negative energy out by tapping into my abilities. The same is true of many other artists. I fully expect 2020 to spawn a great artistic movement. There will eventually be stories written about the coronavirus pandemic and future generations will read them as a time marker.
My mom always tells me things can change in an instant. And this pandemic has shown me just how fragile the balance of our world is. We don’t realize how much we take for granted until our lives slow down. We are so used to living in the age of technology that we don’t know how to live any other way. Generations before us didn’t have television, internet, electricity, etc., but we can’t seem to live without them. The more tech-reliant we become, the less able we are to live without it. We are a product of modern society.
I am thankful that in America we have not seen some of the horrible things that have happened in Italy and, I suspect, Wuhan, China, too. Even though cases in the United States grew higher than any other country in the world, we have, just barely, escaped our hospitals being completely overrun with patients. We’ve been able to treat patients and not leave them dying in a hallway.
It will be interesting to see how our life changes after this national and international crisis. At the least, our nursing students will need to be trained on how to deal with events like pandemics.
The toll this pandemic has had on the local, national and global economies will not be completely known for years to come. I am proud of some of the things I have been able to accomplish during this time. I have been able to work on some of my personal writing; I’ve done some spring cleaning and I’ve been able to practice some self-care techniques. I am also proud of everyone who has made it through this strange time in our lives. And thank you to our healthcare workers, grocery store workers, janitors and other essential workers for making the COVID-19 pandemic as painless as possible.