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What Happens on Bourbon St. Stays on Bourbon St.

One month before the first coronavirus tests arrived in Louisiana, I pushed through a raucous crowd of strangers in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Down the middle of Royal Street, Krewe du Vieux was lewdly rolling, all papier-mâché flesh and half-naked dancers — one of the first parades of the Carnival season. At that point, in early February, only 12 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the United States. “Social distancing” had not entered our vocabulary, and the French Quarter was a crush of bodies, the crowd the kind that has a current — move with it or be moved. When the parade ended, friends and I squeezed into a packed art gallery, where a party lasted well into the night, until the only people left dancing were barefoot and giddy with the late hour, the exhausting beginning of the fun.

A few days later, a friend stood on my back steps, ready to harvest lemons from my prolific tree. “Don’t hug me — I have the weirdest cough,” he said as he backed away from my open arms. “My lungs hurt. Honestly, it’s kind of scaring me.”

During Carnival, a festival that lasts from Jan. 6 to Mardi Gras, New Orleans welcomes the world to join us in nonstop, over-the-top celebration. It is, normally, a time of joy and togetherness, excess and hospitality. This year, though, people talked of a Mardi Gras curse: As the wreckage of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel loomed over Canal Street, two people died after slipping under the wheels of tandem floats. Meanwhile, a virus circulated among us, unseen.

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