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Two interviewers with interviewee, standing in the streets of New Orleans.
Sara Bernstein (left) and Elise Chatelain (right) of Dismantle Media and Culture Alliance with New Orleans resident Zelda Parquet (center) in 2023. Dismantle conducted interviews with twenty workers in New Orleans' tourism and hospitality industry as part of the COVID-19 American History Project. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

COVID Recollections: “People Make the World Move”- Pandemic Stories from New Orleans-Area Service and Hospitality Workers

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This post is part of a new series titled, “COVID Recollections.” The series features stories, dispatches, and reflections from the COVID-19 American History Project, a Congressionally funded initiative to create an archive of Americans’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, guest authors Sara T. Bernstein and Elise Chatelain, members of Dismantle Media and Culture Alliance, describe their work documenting the COVID-19 experiences of service and hospitality workers in New Orleans. Dismantle received a contract from the American Folklife Center to undertake this research as part of the COVID-19 American History Project.

Part I

It’s a warm, unseasonably dry November morning in New Orleans. We park on a quiet street of cottages and bungalows in the Gentilly neighborhood. It isn’t hard to guess our destination: the bright purple door frame and lingering Halloween decorations give it away. Three of us—Elise Chatelain, Sara Bernstein and videographer Justin Micaroni—unload our lights and recording equipment. We walk up the porch steps and knock on the door. When Luke, our eleventh oral history participant, lets us inside, we set up and take in the surroundings. A friendly dog and lots of children’s toys make for a cozy living room. We collectively admire the vintage circus posters and gaze around at the masks, sequins, juggling pins, and stilts tucked into corners and on shelves. In a specially-built extension off the kitchen, a trapeze and long silk ropes hang from a vaulted ceiling. In other words, it’s a typical day in the life of oral historians in New Orleans.

Stilt walker and musician Luke Bauer (left) being interviewed by Elise Chatelain (right) of Dismantle Media and Culture Alliance at Bauer’s home in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

Who We Are

Our conversation with Luke, a stilt walker, circus performer, and musician, was one of twenty interviews we conducted for the COVID-19 American History Project. In November 2023, we gathered stories from New Orleanians working in food and beverage service, hospitality, entertainment, and other tourism sectors whose lives and livelihoods were impacted by the pandemic.

The project was contracted through Dismantle, a writing and research agency we founded through our shared belief that stories have the power to make a better world. While this was the first oral history project completed under the Dismantle umbrella, we’ve been doing collaborative social and cultural research for over fifteen years. After earning our doctorates in cultural studies at UC Davis, we continued to write and publish together and eventually founded Dismantle Magazine, a space for scholars, artists, and activists to develop and share ideas outside of traditional academic circles.

Since graduate school, most of our work as a team has happened while living on opposite sides of the country. Elise is a New Orleans-area native. In addition to her academic career, she has worked in the city for many years as a server, bartender, and food and beverage manager. She and Justin—her partner, and our videographer on this project—together ran his bar and café for nearly twelve years. Justin continues to work in the city’s restaurant and hospitality industries, and has an extensive social and professional network. He played an important role as a key informant and secondary interviewer, providing valuable insight and culturally relevant questions.

Sara has also worked in service and retail, and we’ve shared common ground with our personal and political investment in labor rights. We also have an academic interest in the complex ways Americans imagine work, and how our shared stories have material impacts on workers. And maybe because we both grew up in small towns and dreamed of living in exciting, far-away cities, we are fascinated with stories about place and power.

All that’s to say: when we saw the call from the American Folklife Center to gather oral histories about COVID-19 experiences from frontline workers, we knew exactly what we wanted to propose.

Pandemic Stories from New Orleans

When COVID hit, New Orleans had the third most tourist-dependent economy in the U.S. (Ghandi 2020). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 90,000 people—nearly one-fifth of the area’s workforce—were employed in accommodation and food service in January 2020. By April of 2020, that number had been cut in half (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2023). Additionally, as we now know, COVID hotspots often corresponded to regions with large Black and low-income populations. Nearly 60% of New Orleanians identify as Black or African American; almost one quarter of residents live below the official poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau 2023).

This combination of forces meant the impact of the pandemic was especially hard on New Orleans. At the same time, the city’s culture has long been shaped by disaster, and residents adapted to the circumstances with resilience and strength.

When conceiving this project, we saw New Orleans as a special site for being simultaneously unique and representative of experiences faced by service and hospitality workers across the world. Our interviews explored the pandemic’s impact on a community reliant on tourist and service economy (two of the world’s largest economic sectors) in an age where this industry is increasingly facing environmental, economic, and health risks, and from a group of people well-versed in navigating adversity and perpetual disaster. While the stories were specific to their time and place, they were also a window into an emerging way of life in the 21st century, as workers adapt and respond to uncertain social and economic conditions.

Taxi driver Kiran Roy (left) and Elise Chatelain (right), of Dismantle Media and Culture Alliance, in New Orleans, LA in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

Our selected participants included bartenders and restaurant staff; front desk workers, housekeepers, and managers in hotel and nightlife; we also talked with a renowned local tour guide and her coworker, a taxi and tour bus driver. Additionally, we wanted to include some of the musicians and entertainers who make New Orleans a unique place to visit. That’s what brought us to Luke the stilt walker’s house. We also talked to folks like DJ EF Cuttin (aka Thomas Edwards)—a fixture in the local nightlife scene; Shaquita Griffin, an up-and-coming comedian, and Fredy Garcia, a musician whose family has a long history in the city’s musical culture.

Musician and hospitality worker Fredy Garcia. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

In a way we didn’t fully anticipate, our participant selection was enriched by the reality that many entertainers work in the hospitality industries in other capacities—a way to smooth out the inconsistencies of seasonal and gig work. So, in the above group, DJ EF Cuttin is also a nightclub manager; Shaquita works at a hotel; and Fredy is a server and festival worker. Every person we interviewed was affected by the shutdown in March of 2020. As the pandemic progressed, the majority of our participants had no choice but to return to public-facing jobs, meaning they were on the front lines of COVID-19 when others still had the option to stay home.

Part II

Bartender and snowball vendor Pauletten Callahan (left) being interviewed by Elise Chatelain and Sara Bernstein in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

Over the course of three weeks, we dug deep with our participants, exploring their histories and COVID experiences that often moved us to tears and laughter. We can best describe these weeks as a time of joy and community connection, where we interacted with strangers and old friends, former coworkers and friends of friends. While of course each person’s story was unique, and our participants reflected a wide range of identities and job roles that make up the city’s hospitality work sector, there were some noticeable patterns in terms of how they experienced the unfolding of the pandemic. These are probably best presented as a two-part chronology: 1) the initial shutdown and losing work and 2) the return to work.

However, we think it’s important to note that participants did not always tell their stories chronologically, and their memories unfolded in complex ways. What people remembered, and how they remembered, were often reflective of their backgrounds, experiences, and insights.

The Initial Shutdowns: The Year 2020

Almost everyone we interviewed experienced a loss of work during the initial shutdowns of spring and summer 2020. Many found themselves, as they worded it, with “nothing to do” for the first time in their adult lives. We asked them to not just tell us how they spent these months in quarantine, but also what discoveries they made, about themselves and the people around them.

This part of the interviews was a lot of fun! We learned that people overwhelmingly enjoyed the time to focus on themselves, their families, and their creativity. For Brodrick Cane, lifelong cook and kitchen manager, this meant getting creative with new recipes that also kept his family happy. We asked him if he had a new favorite dish that has stuck with him, and he immediately had an answer:

Gumbo greens . . . which is something like the traditional greens recipe, but you mix it in with the gumbo recipe. It’s called gumbo greens . . . [M]y family . . . [t]hey always be, “When you gonna make some more gumbo greens?” And that’s something I learned during COVID, you know?

Ragan Wicker, a music venue bartender, wore beautiful hand-crafted earrings to her interview. When we asked her about them, she told us that she started making them during the summer of 2020, first to stay entertained, and then for extra income during a two-year period without full-time employment. She’s continued with this creative and business endeavor.

Line cook and kitchen manager Brodrick Cane (right) and Elise Chatelain (left), of Dismantle Media and Culture Alliance, in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.
Bartender and jewelry maker Ragan Wicker in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

Similar to Brodrick and Ragan, many others started new traditions during this initial pandemic period. For some, these included healthy routines that have stuck with them. For instance, Benjamin Ezra Ciereszynski was fifteen when he lost his dishwasher job in March 2020. That summer, he began a workout routine to break through the monotony of not leaving the house. On the day of his interview, he gave us a tour of his university’s gym, where he continues to exercise regularly. Similarly, Christine Paxton, a hotel sales manager, credits COVID with initiating her now-regular lunchtime walks around the French Quarter, as well as an annual holiday dinner celebration with close friends.

We also heard beautiful stories of people coming together for community and familial support. For cultural and community leaders, like Jamilah Y. Peters-Muhammad (affectionately known to many as Mama Jamilah), this meant deploying formal networks and starting outreach campaigns, including creating access paths to food and healthcare for older musicians. For others, like Ragan and comedian/hotel worker Shaquita Griffin, this meant ensuring friends, neighbors, and coworkers were safe, housed, healthy, and maybe most importantly, not lonely.

Our DJs, musicians, and culture bearers all fostered new forms of entertainment and artistic expression. Jessica Simmons, a popular DJ in the New Orleans nightlife scene, was excited by the earning potential of live online performances. Mama Jamilah told us about virtual community programs she helped initiate through her church and as a leader at the Ashé Cultural Center, many of which have lasted until today.

Artist, musician, and community leader Jamilah Y. Peters-Muhammad in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

At the same time, of course, job loss posed many challenges to our participants. Front of house workers, community leaders, and entertainers all seemed especially affected by being cut off from public life. Several people reported their own or others’ relationship or mental health struggles, especially as the months wore on and the pandemic showed no signs of letting up. These were exacerbated by substance abuse issues, which participants talked about as a persistent challenge in the service and hospitality industries. Shaye Hope, a French Quarter bartender, talked candidly about the losses she and her community have faced since COVID. She stated, “I had good friends that have not come back, you know from the addiction…. It just blew up. It really, really blew up.”

Some left their regular work in the service and hospitality industries altogether. For dishwasher Lionel Breaux, the pandemic provided an opportunity out of a lifelong restaurant career through the unemployment system, which required applicants to apply to jobs in order to receive weekly benefits. This earned him a coveted position with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, with regular daytime hours and benefits. While many reported this requirement as a joke, Lionel expressed delight that he was able to find a new, improved career.

Speaking of unemployment, we were amazed at the huge difference a small amount of consistent weekly earnings made for our participants. For our mostly working-class population, lives were improved in the long run by the short term infusion of regular cash.

Ultimately, what struck us was how much opportunity this moment of pause offered for so many, in terms of a generative time for creativity, community, and positive change and personal growth. As Janine Hayes, server and bartender told us:

I actually really enjoyed not working . . . I was like, I’m taking my shoes off and just relaxing ‘cause, you know, I’ve been working in the service industry for 20 plus years—or longer than that—but 20 years of Port of Call. And it’s like, I’m tired . . .You know, sometimes I would just never get out of my pajamas. Just like, make some food. Go walk the dogs. Come back, make some more food. Watch some Netflix. It was great. I definitely embraced that time.

Janine’s words highlight the common treatment of service workers as disposable and dispensable. Without benefits, consistent pay, or the promise of steady employment, many in the industry work long, hard hours for years without a break.

We can also tentatively say that the more privileged and financially comfortable our participants were, the more likely they were to see the shutdown as beneficial and positive. It’s a question worth further exploration, and one that should consider the racial inequities of the city’s labor system. For instance, a few of our participants, like Shaquita and Sidney, did return to work sooner than many others, possibly reflecting greater financial need directly related to their less lucrative and more unstable roles in the service industry.

The Return to Work

For most of our respondents, the return to work happened slowly, with a start and stop pattern, and this made it difficult for them to remember exact dates and circumstances, even with pre-interview prep and prompting. However, all of them talked about the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty upon their return. Anita Oubre, local entertainer and hotel HR manager, recalled a deep fear that she would bring illness home:

There was a lot of fear. I can remember being fearful, myself. I . . . was afraid I would make my husband sick . . . he’s older than me. And I felt like, “I hope I don’t kill my husband because I’m going to work!” You know, I can remember, like, taking my clothes and my shoes off before I would enter my home. And I even did not want to sleep in the bed with him because I didn’t know if I had caught something during the course of the day. 

Anita, like many respondents, felt torn between wanting to return to work and for things to get “back to normal,” while also feeling vulnerable and exposed as tourism returned to the region. Participants in public-facing jobs talked about the lack of care and concern for tourism and hospitality workers, from both consumers and officials. A huge theme was the struggle of managing a tourist public. Bartender Shaye described her customers as having “feral behavior,” theorizing that months of minimal human interaction made people lose basic social skills. For those who worked through the gradual reopening of bars, restaurants, and venues, wearing a mask while working in the New Orleans heat was a particularly memorable challenge. Ashley Kinoshita recalled working in a neighborhood restaurant during the summer of 2021:

I remember feeling weird about being in a mask all the time . . . and for a slow restaurant, it was still rather busy, ‘cause we had our patio which is in the back, this beautiful patio. And in the front, you know, we have inside seating and to go back and forth inside, outside in the heat and a mask that was—that was brutal. Um, wearing our, our aprons and our—our blacks. Yeah, that was—it was [exhales deeply]. My coworker at the time . . . he was working outside on the patio, I remember. And it was so hot. And he was so dehydrated, that he fainted at a table.

Kitchen staff also talked of the heat and discomfort of wearing a mask while working in a hot kitchen for hours at a time. We thought Sidney Davis captured the feeling perfectly when we asked him what it was like wearing a mask with his glasses. “Foggy,” he said with a laugh. “Foggy, foggy.”

Restaurant worker Sidney Davis in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

Front of house workers like Janine, Shaye, and Paulette Callahan felt particularly frustrated with customers who blamed them for government regulations, like the mask and vaccine mandates required by the city. They found these especially hard to navigate when officials immediately outside of New Orleans, such as in neighboring Jefferson Parish, had much looser regulations. In fact, Jefferson Parish is where Thomas Edwards was working in 2020, managing a regional coffee chain. He did not experience immediate job loss, just a shift to take-out and drive-through service. However, he still had to navigate local regulations, like wearing a mask and using disposable dishware. He eventually left this job because of conflicts with his bosses, who did not want to follow COVID safety mandates.

This example highlights a final common theme among our participants, which was the importance of strong leadership—not just in government, but in the workplace. For instance, tour workers Zelda Parquet and Kiran Roy were incredibly grateful for the support they received from their bosses, who guided them through the start of the pandemic, supported their workers in getting benefits, and carefully instituted health and safety practices when they finally were able to return to work. This contrasted greatly to the leadership conflicts faced by Thomas and others.

Actress, bartender, and writer Kami Onikosi being interviewed at her home in Kenner, LA in 2023.

Part III

A lot of the focus on frontline workers has been on those in “essential” jobs, like healthcare professionals, grocery clerks, and delivery drivers, all of whom were asked to ignore the stay-at-home orders for the sake of the greater good. As we outlined above, most of our participants actually weren’t working during the initial months of the pandemic. Their jobs were put on hold as tourism and hospitality stopped all of the sudden and with very little warning.

However, the service and hospitality professionals we interviewed still experienced being on the “front lines” of COVID. When their jobs did come back, they had to make a choice between earnings/survival and risking their and their loved one’s health. Even today, these workers regularly have to make choices that put financial need over their well-being. As Mama Jamilah highlighted:

[I]t is so unfortunate that so many of our culture bearers have to snatch a $50 gig. And that’s their reality. It’s nothing for them to be out playing at a club full of people from 10:00 to 2-3 in the morning, and coming home with a head full of drinks and $50.

While most participants said they appreciated their jobs, we were still struck by the sometimes harrowing description of working in service and hospitality. Unfortunately for many of them, it has been a tough transition back to regular schedules, with fewer coworkers and greater expectations from customers, upper management, and ownership. Right before we did her interview, Kami Onikosi left her bartending job at a major hotel chain due to what she described as unrealistic management expectations. She told us:

I can’t do it. I couldn’t see myself doing it because—it’s humanity, you know, and I’m for humanity. So it’s like, oh, God, no, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, I can’t. And that’s when I started to really understand the truth about how cruel—how cruel, you know, not just management but rules can be. How they can be out of touch with what’s really going on and what’s happening. 

As Kami’s example shows, policies and systems that don’t recognize the true scope of workers’ lives, and the reality of their job duties, lead to an unsustainable industry where workers are overworked and overwhelmed.

At several points in her interview, Mama Jamilah eloquently showed how it is the artists and service workers who make New Orleans special. However, she and many of our other participants believed that the city’s hospitality professionals are often undervalued and dismissed. Several of our participants articulated larger structural problems in the lack of local and federal regulation around housing, transportation, workers’ rights, and community investment.

Despite these frustrations, almost everyone we interviewed espoused their love for their city and its culture. This love, shared by locals and visitors alike, brings hope and the possibility that people can band together to create something better around a sense of collective good.

For us, the fundamental lesson from our interviews was that if New Orleans and its tourism economy is going to thrive, we must all recognize that the city’s servers, bartenders, musicians, line cooks, entertainers, dishwashers, hotel cleaners, managers, and taxi drivers are the driving force behind the city’s culture and its greatest economic industry. As Shaquita Griffin told us:

People make the world move. Like, we make the entire world move. And, like, a lot of times we feel powerless, but the pandemic showed me that when everybody stopped, the world stopped. They cannot do a thing without us. Like not one thing.

Comedian and hotel worker Shaquita Griffin in 2023. Photo by Justin Thomas Micaroni.

 

Works Cited: 

Ghandi, Mitul. “U.S. Cities Most Reliant on Tourism.” SEO Clarity. Sept 29, 2020. https://www.seoclarity.net/blog/us-cities-most-reliant-on-tourism.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “All Employees, In Thousands, New Orleans-Metairie, 2013-2023.” Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject. Retrieved on November 1, 2023. https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/SMU22353807000000001?amp%253bdata_tool=XGtable&output_view=data&include_graphs=true

U.S. Census Bureau. “Quick Facts. New Orleans city, Louisiana. Retrieved March 21, 2023. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/neworleanscitylouisiana/PST045222

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