Cabbages will not rain from the sky this year in New Orleans. As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, my city's leadership canceled the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Super Sunday, the annual gathering of Mardi Gras Indian gangs to show off their incredible beaded suits, has also been called off. Hogs for the Cause, our incredible charity barbecue contest, is off. Like every other community in America right now, disruption is the new norm.
No one is happy about this. When my two young kids learned that Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey would not be coming to the New Orleans Book Festival, now canceled, there were tears. When they heard the St. Patrick's parade was off and that float riders would not throw them green beads, cabbages and boxes of Lucky Charms (it's New Orleans), my 6-year-old banged his fist on the dining room table and said, "I HATE this virus."
He's not alone. One of the parade organizers grumbled that the city was overreacting. Around the country, others have worried that panic over the virus raises the risk of ignoring the financial and social damage such steps will take.
And that damage is real. The travel industry has been badly hurt, and the restaurant industry is losing millions of dollars a day as people stay home. Even in cities without a large number of confirmed cases, restaurants are seeing between 20 to 50 percent less business. Conventions and festivals are all being called off. Offices are closing, keeping workers home, drying up the lunch business.
In New Orleans, many are wondering if Jazz Fest, the biggest festival of the year after Mardi Gras, will actually happen at the end of April. One sommelier at a top wine restaurant in New Orleans told me that they make 25 percent of their annual wine sales during that 10-day period.
And while restaurants, hotels, airlines and cruise ships are taking the most immediate hit, who knows what the overall fallout will be for the global economy?
But as painful as all this social distancing is to both our wallets and our psyches, it's the only sane option for preventing an even greater pandemic. The reason for that lies with the virus itself. Medical experts have found that this new coronavirus spreads easily; many who get it will develop mild symptoms. Because there has been little testing in the U.S., the number of people currently walking around with the virus is undoubtedly far higher than today's confirmed 1,700 cases.
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And while the majority of people exposed to the virus will develop mild symptoms and recover, so far 3.6 percent of confirmed cases have been fatal. What's more, 20 percent of confirmed cases turn serious, leading to pneumonia, difficulty breathing and other life-threatening complications.
Slowing the virus' spread is our best hope of not overtaxing our medical system. If the illness spreads gradually, they can treat critical patients in ICUs rather than tents in hospital parking lots. Accepting all this disruption now will hopefully save lives.
So here's my advice:
Practice smart social distancing. No concerts, no big gatherings. Stay home if you can. Most restaurant workers don't have paid leave if they get sick. Support your favorite restaurants by ordering delivery or takeout.
Spend time with your loved ones. Yes, I'm not thrilled March Madness is canceled this year, either. But maybe the answer is to put down our phones that keep dinging with constant news alerts, take a deep breath, cook a meal and sit down with family and friends to eat and talk.
You know what goes well with good food and good company? Wine. Pick up a mixed case or open some of those bottles you've been saving for a rainy day, because it's pouring right now. Enjoy how wine can make a meal and provoke conversation.
Can I suggest something Italian? The people of Italy are on the front lines right now, with their entire nation under lockdown and all restaurants and wineries closed to visitors. They are going to be in economic distress for some time. Support them. Because here's the thing about a global pandemic: We're all in this together, even if we're keeping our distance right now.