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Festival goers, walk from vendor to vendor as they enjoy crawfish during the Crawfete crawfish festival, on Sunday, at Perkins Rowe.

Every spring, Tamiko Garrison fills her calendar with festivals and events, coordinating the days she and her friends will take off work to catch a parade, sip champagne on Magazine Street in New Orleans or go have fun anywhere they can find. In the past few days, her plans came to a grinding halt.

And to make matters worse, she gave up TV and online video streaming for Lent.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now," she said.

Like many in south Louisiana, festivals, crawfish boils and other get-togethers pack people's schedules throughout the spring. Most have been canceled or rescheduled after a Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday banned public gatherings of more than 250 people through mid-April in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

"People are going to go into mass hysteria cause there's nothing to do," said Garrison, 51, of Donaldsonville. “Our culture is to be out doing festivals. An ice chest and a couple of chairs, and we’re rolling.”

The governor's order is among dramatic steps government leaders have taken to blunt the growth of coronavirus cases in Louisiana, though it has already proven fatal here. They’ve stressed that spacing out its spread is needed to minimize deaths and avoid a sudden surge of sick patients that could overwhelm hospitals and medical facilities.  

Along with stressing hand-washing and disease prevention steps, health officials also encourage social distancing. It involves avoiding crowds, staying up to six feet away from others in public, avoiding handshakes and staying home when sick.

That runs counter to Louisiana culture.

Following reports of the coronavirus spreading within in the New Orleans area, the city’s mayor suspended weekend events and parades, including the well-attended St. Patrick's Day and St. Joseph's Day parades. Not long after, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome asked event organizers to pump the brakes on their events while encouraging private event holders to do the same. Then came the governor's announcement scratching other items off Louisiana's social calendar. 

Saturday's St. Patrick's Day Parade: postponed. The weekend's home and garden show at LSU: canceled. Next month's Angola prison rodeos: postponed.

“I strongly encourage you to exercise discretion and practice social distancing by refraining from hugging, kissing and shaking hands,” Broome said last week. “I know this is often challenging for us and our culture.”

Organizer for the Wearin' of the Green St. Patrick’s Day parade, the city’s most-attended festival, postponed the event shortly after.

Garrison was looking forward to attending Baton Rouge's Wearin' of the Green parade Saturday. Though she says she understands the risks of potentially getting sick, she says calling off those and other events may have been overkill.

St Patrick's Day is a particular challenge and was an impending wave of worry for health officials like Dr. Alex Billioux, the assistant secretary for the state's Office of Public Health. He said he agrees of calling off events in the interest of public health.

"Part of the tradition is embracing each other and sometimes kissing each other," Billioux said. “That's a transmission nightmare.”

The strategy that Louisiana and federal agencies are taking is known as “flattening the curve,” which aims to extend the number of new cases over a longer period. By doing so, they hope to prevent a sudden rush of hospital patients beyond what medical professionals can handle. When looking at the spread of cases on a chart, a rapid increase shows up as a spike, while slow growth over a longer period of time appears as a flatter arc. 

While several people in the capital region expressed disappointment about postponing St. Patrick's Day festivities and other events, it’s worth noting how two American cities addressed a Spanish flu more than a century ago.

In 1918, local officials in Philadelphia allowed a World War I parade to roll, while 900 miles away, St. Louis shut down events, churches, courts and many other public areas after detecting the city’s first cases.

The results were significant.

Philadelphia's death rate spiked to 250 for every 100,000 residents within a few weeks as thousands of sick people flooded hospitals, according to data collected by the National Academy of Sciences.

Cases in St. Louis, however, remained far lower and hovered at its highest peak at a rate of 50 over 100,000 people. Though outbreaks in the city lasted about two months longer, academics noted far fewer overall deaths than in Philadelphia.

Leaders in Louisiana appear to be heeding that cautionary tale, as well as those they've observed in recent weeks in the Seattle area where the coronavirus has gained a strong foothold. 

Most of Louisiana's cases of COVID-19 — the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus — have been clustered in the New Orleans area, which officials say has spread from person-to-person and not because of travel.

For most people, the illness causes mild or moderate symptoms like fever and cough, but older adults and people with underlying health problems are especially susceptible to severe illness. 

The coronavirus is an effective spreader, Billoux said. Citing Chinese data from where the virus emerged in late 2019, he said for every person who contracted the disease two or three others caught it. The chances of getting sick are higher at a large event, compared to a grocery store or restaurant visit.

"It's just so much greater when there's a large crowd,” Billoux said. “That's the logic to not having those gatherings in place."

But balancing health needs with money-generating events that many in the state rely on is proving to be a tricky balancing act.

The state’s tourism office lists more than 50 festivals on its website throughout March, as well as hundreds of culinary, cultural and music events that are now up in the air following the governor’s order.

Edwards and other top officials have said people who aren’t sick or vulnerable to severe complications should go about their daily lives. 

He and other public health officials have strongly discouraged older people or those with other health problems from going to crowded areas, taking non-essential flights and going on cruise ships.

Because so many people work in the tourism and hospitality industry, the blow they face has been on state leaders' minds, especially minimum wage workers who rely on tips. 

"We're going to have to really tighten our belts now,” Billioux said. “If we do these aggressive measures now, we think the impact will be shorter than if we try to get by and have that Philadelphia parade."


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad