The Pandemic Silences the Essential Sounds of New Orleans

By Pia Heyert

The COVID-19 pandemic that struck New Orleans seemingly came out of nowhere. With Mardi Gras season just ending and the warm summer air was starting to creep back in, New Orleans was quickly becoming one of the nation’s epicenters of the coronavirus (COVID-19). This was much of a surprise to the citizens of the lively city. Everything was quickly shut down: gyms, clubs, schools, restaurants, everything. So many people were put out of work, and few were hit harder than live performers. With New Orleans being the home of jazz and live music, what were these people going to do? 

Individual performers and large bands were put into a panic. Eventually, there were opportunities to perform on the internet, but that wasn’t going to help them survive and pay their rent. Many musicians live off tips, and this was a huge limiting factor when they were unable to perform live anymore. Many New Orleans musicians do not have other jobs to fall back on, relying on their passion for music to survive. Individuals suffered on their own and the city of New Orleans faced economic struggles since partying and music are the financial base of this city.   

One local New Orleans band, Galactic, has been greatly affected by the pandemic. Not only were they a touring band, but they had also become new club owners. The band purchased the famous music club Tipitina’s that sits on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. With the idea of a pandemic far from their minds, they decided to purchase the legendary club in 2018. However, Tipitina’s, along with other clubs, was forced to shut down in the midst of the pandemic. Galactic is now a band with nowhere to perform, owning a club with no audience to play to. Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines said that “they wanted the club to stay alive in independent hands,” but admitted that “it is devastating for the band since they have barely owned the club for a year and a half” before this happened. With the constant rise of coronavirus cases and the tight restrictions, it seems very unlikely for live music to return to clubs any time soon. 

Elsewhere in the city, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic is on the frontlines with the performers most affected. A non-profit organization, the Musicians Clinic is here to help the live performers in New Orleans’ historic music community get the health care they need. Bethany Bultman is the founder of the first and only full scale health clinic for musicians in the country. While attending the first musicians’ health summit in Washington, D.C. in early March, Bethany was informed by physicians at Homeland 

Security that outbreaks of coronavirus cases across the United States could all be linked to Mardi Gras. After hearing this news, Bethany and her clinic team did not wait for New Orleans and the testing to start before taking initiative. “By the time me and my colleagues got back to New Orleans,” she says, “we had come up with a plan to be proactive in feeding patients, and keeping them as safe as possible.” During the beginning of the pandemic there was little to no information about the benefits of mask-wearing, so the clinic started writing up fact sheets using reliable health sources to inform their community. “We wanted to stay in the public health lane,” she explained. It was devastating for Bethany to tell musicians to stay away and stop doing what they loved, but the clinic knew that this was the safest measure to make. “We realized their lives were at stake.”  

As the pandemic has progressed, the clinic continues to help its communities. The clinic makes 3,500 lunches per week in partnership with The Howlin’ Wolf, another music venue in New Orleans that has been closed down due to the pandemic. The clinic also has a team of volunteers, including nurses, public health officials, and community volunteers. “These volunteers follow very close COVID protocols to be able to deliver 100 meals a week to patients who are the most medically vulnerable,” Bethany explained. To her and the clinic, we are far from being past the pandemic. However, Bethany and her team will continue to do as much as they can to keep protecting people.

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