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Crowd control during the COVID pandemic has been a challenge in New Orleans

Being socially distant is being socially responsible. But as numerous videos of crowds have shown us, that may be easier said than done.

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — The issue of large gatherings is getting a lot of attention as the city of New Orleans is seeing what the mayor calls a “concerning increase” in COVD-19 cases. 

A recent video on social media showed crowds of people on Claiborne Avenue, underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway. It’s a scene that often plays out every Sunday.

“It’s crowded with motorcycles and annoying noise, and you don’t get any rest until after 9 or 10 o’clock at night,” said one neighbor.

In pre-pandemic New Orleans, crowds could form anywhere at any time. That social fabric is woven into New Orleans.

“That’s one of the positives to our city. That’s what’s gotten us through Katrina, the oil spill, all these disasters that we’ve encountered,” Dr. Tonya Hansel said.

For the African American community in New Orleans, there’s historical and cultural significance to the Sunday gathering. During the time of slavery, it was only on Sundays that slaves could come together in places like Congo Square.

“Even though it’s part of the culture, people weren’t dying like this, we didn’t have an epidemic like we do now,” one neighbor said.

In a sign of the times, many people I spoke with didn’t want to be identified when talking about crowds and what should be done to contain them.

“It’s not being enforced. It goes back to other big issues. We don’t have enough resources, and when I’m talking about resources I’m talking about cops," the neighbor said.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson says the NOPD has been cracking down on the crowd on Claiborne well before the pandemic but doing so is complicated because it’s a public space.

“Individuals have certain constitutional rights that we have respect as well. We definitely try to engage and discourage gatherings as much and as often as possible,” Ferguson said.

Doctor Tonya Hansel is with the Tulane School of Social work. She says during times of stress and anxiety people often turn to each other to take the edge off. Hansel says an isolation fatigue may be setting.

“We’re going on almost a year dealing with COVID, and I think people are desperate in some ways. I think we should do everything we can to keep reminding people that it’s just a bit longer, hopefully we’ll have a vaccine in the near future and we can get back to our normal,” said Dr. Hansel.

Until then, being socially distant is being socially responsible. But as numerous videos of crowds have shown us, that may be easier said than done.

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