Can New Orleans Celebrate Mardi Gras Without Reckless Abandon?

2 weeks ago

NEW ORLEANS — During the final days of the annual citywide celebration known as Mardi Gras, Kyle Thibodeaux typically earns around $ 2,000 at his bartending job on Bourbon Street — as much as he sometimes makes in a month.

“It’s the single busiest weekend of the whole year,” Mr. Thibodeaux said.

But this year, with parades canceled, bars closed and plans for outdoor concerts scrapped, Mr. Thibodeaux, a bartender at Tropical Isle, has decided to go skiing in New Mexico.

“I don’t know how to responsibly have Carnival,” he said. “Nobody’s in their complete sober mind during this time. They’re celebrating, and when you do that, you tend to forget the little things, like avoiding close contact with people.”

One year into a global pandemic that has upended daily life and devastated service and tourism industries that could take years to recover, cities like New Orleans have grappled with how to salvage annual celebrations that draw thousands of visitors. Last year, Bourbon Street became a hot spot for the coronavirus, and experts said Mardi Gras may have accelerated the spread.

New Orleans — and the entire state of Louisiana — has struggled to contain the virus, with a recent surge finally leveling off over the past couple of weeks. As of Sunday morning, there have been at least 418,585 cases and 9,276 deaths in the state, according to a New York Times database.

Still, though city officials decided late last year to cancel the Mardi Gras parades, socially distanced celebrations had been planned. Bars bought liquor, musicians were booked for outdoor concerts and residents scrambled to finish sewing ornate costumes.

And then videos of dozens of raucous revelers crammed in the French Quarter, many of them without masks, began circulating online. In response, city officials announced a sweeping crackdown that included shuttering all bars for the final weekend and through Fat Tuesday.

“If you’re coming here thinking you’re going to celebrate like a normal year, don’t come,” Beau Tidwell, a city spokesman, said at a news briefing last week, noting that more than 740 New Orleans residents had died from Covid-19. “We remain in the midst of a global pandemic that is costing lives. We know that large gatherings spread Covid. We know that Covid kills people. It’s as simple as that.”

But for many residents, particularly those who work in the service industry, it was not that simple.

Last month, the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, said Mardi Gras tourists were welcome, provided they “act like a New Orleanian” and follow safety protocols. So after months spent preparing for a socially distanced, pandemic-era version of Mardi Gras, the fresh restrictions felt like a blow. For some, they were an economic death knell.

“We will be closed indefinitely,” said a sign on the locked door of one bar near the French Quarter, which blamed the mayor’s “ever changing policies.”

A decorated home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.

Most neighborhoods were virtual ghost towns after dark last week — and a citywide ban on to-go drinks and the closing of traditional Carnival gathering spots in the French Quarter made them even quieter this weekend. The restrictions were enforced with barricades and police checkpoints.

“We’re trying to be responsible and feel like New Orleans, but it’s a struggle,” said Doug Trager, the manager of the Maple Leaf Bar, in the Carrolton neighborhood of Uptown, which was forced to cancel a series of socially distanced live music shows at a brewery with a large outdoor space.

Still, he added, there was more to the holiday than bare chests, beads and parades. “We’re not going to let it stop us from enjoying Mardi Gras,” he said of the restrictions. “We’re just doing it a different way.”

Mr. Trager, who lost his 87-year-old father to Covid-19 last month, said the fluctuating restrictions over the past year have undercut the Maple Leaf’s best efforts to follow the rules. “Every time we try to figure something out to work with the mayor, this happens,” he said.

A few live music venues have popped up around town, sometimes in private homes, he said, but the threat of penalties has pushed the scene largely underground. “Musicians now have to perform in alleyways,” he said.

Much of the blame for the crackdown has fallen on the weekend revelers who gathered on Bourbon Street, the city’s iconic hub of shoulder-to-shoulder partying and debauchery. In recent weeks, videos of rowdy, mostly maskless crowds sparked a furor on social media and at City Hall.

Despite several large signs warning residents and visitors to “mask up or lock down,” many of those out last weekend ignored safety protocols. A group of young women stood on a corner in matching silver sequin cowboy hats and white tennis skirts, but few masks. Down the street, visibly intoxicated men, also without masks, lifted up their shirts to draw the attention of those tossing beaded necklaces from second-floor balconies.

By early last week, seven bars across the city had been shut down for violating social distancing regulations. But many residents said they were being penalized for the actions of tourists.

“We’re the ones that are going to pay the price,” said Shel Roumillat, a costume designer, who added that the pandemic had taken a steep emotional and financial toll. In typical years, she said, she would make about 45 headpieces for parade float riders.

But the seasonal flow of preparations for Mardi Gras, which she likened to the city’s circadian rhythm, was now out of whack. “We can’t share in the rituals that are part of how we live,” she said.

Dara Quick, the owner of She Comes In Peace, a costume shop and hair salon, said she felt “super conflicted” about selling the store’s iridescent, glittery wigs and zany headdresses during the pandemic. For Carnival, she said, the staff has produced matching sequined face masks to encourage safe merriment.

“I still want to thrive,” she said, “but I also don’t want to condone a reckless Mardi Gras.”

Across the city, vibrant — albeit somewhat muted — celebrations have nonetheless unfolded. Hundreds of homes were colorfully decorated as “house floats.” JamNola, an “experience museum” seemingly designed for Instagram, paid local artists, including Ms. Roumillat, to outfit its many exhibits with the likes of Mardi Gras crowns, psychedelic soda bottle chandeliers and a glittery alligator sculpture.

And on one Saturday night this month, the residents of a former mansion in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood hosted from their porch a socially distanced concert by a keyboardist who crooned classics like “Sultans of Swing” by the Dire Straits. A handful of people in face masks watched from the sidewalk and from outside a bar across the street.

“It’s a way to feed the soul,” said Barbara Rath, an infectious disease doctor who lives in the building. She said residents have hosted a few live musical acts during the pandemic, inspired by videos of Italians singing opera on their balconies last spring.

“I thought, ‘Well, New Orleans is much better for this,’” she said. “We have the architecture that allows you to do these things safely if you’re cautious and don’t have too many people coming.”

Worried in particular about the health risks to Black residents, who have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the coronavirus in Louisiana and across the country, Mayor Cantrell urged the city’s Mardi Gras Indians to forgo marching on Fat Tuesday.

The customs of the Mardi Gras Indians, Black residents who hold three parades a year and dress in ornate costumes, date back more than a century. Their traditions are generally thought to have originated as a tribute to the American Indians who helped protect enslaved people who were escaping.

Entirely ignoring the ritual is not an option for Cherice Harrison-Nelson, 61, the Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians. She described the city’s cultural practitioners as “spiritual first responders,” and said her group plans to instead walk on Monday in a socially distanced procession through their neighborhood, saluting elders outside their homes.

A cancer survivor who recently received her second Covid-19 vaccine, Ms. Harrison-Nelson said she had worked too long and hard on her bead-encrusted, African-inspired costume, a closely guarded secret until its ceremonial debut on Monday morning.

“Nothing is worth my life, but nothing can stop me from doing this,” she said. “This tradition for me is the way that I stitch myself back to my ancestral homeland, one bead, one feather, one stone at a time.”

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