NEW ORLEANS – In the final days of the city’s annual celebration known as Mardi Gras, Kyle Thibodeaux typically makes around $ 2,000 from his job as a bartender on Bourbon Street – as much as he sometimes makes in a month.
“It‘s the busiest weekend of the whole year,” said Thibodeaux.
But this year, with canceled parades, closed bars and abandoned outdoor concert plans, Tropical Isle bartender Mr. Thibodeaux decided to go skiing in New Mexico.
“I don’t know how to organize carnival responsibly,” he said. “No one is completely sober during this time. They party, and when you do that you tend to forget the little things, like avoiding close contact with people.
A year after the onset of a global pandemic that has disrupted daily life and devastated service and tourism industries that could take years to recover, cities like New Orleans have wondered how to save the annual celebrations that attract thousands of visitors. Bourbon Street became a hotspot for the coronavirus last year, and experts have 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 outbreak that has finally stabilized in the past two weeks. As of Sunday morning, there had been at least 418,585 cases and 9,276 deaths in the state, according to a New York Times database.
Yet although city officials decided late last year to cancel the Mardi Gras parades, socially distant celebrations had been planned. Bars bought alcohol, musicians were booked for open-air concerts, and residents scrambled to finish sewing ornate costumes.
And then videos of dozens of loud revelers crammed into the French Quarter, many without masks, began circulating online. In response, city officials announced a sweeping crackdown that included closing all bars for the last weekend and Shrove Tuesday.
“If you come here thinking you’re going to celebrate like a normal year, don’t come,” Beau Tidwell, a city spokesperson, said at a press briefing last week, noting that more than 740 New Orleans residents had died. of Covid-19. “We remain at the heart of a global pandemic that is costing lives. We know that large gatherings have spread Covid. We know Covid is killing people. It’s that simple.”
But for many residents, especially those working in the service industry, it was not that simple.
Last month, the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, said Mardi Gras tourists were welcome, as long as they “act like a New Orleans” and adhere to safety protocols. So, after months of preparing for a socially distanced version of Mardi Gras in the pandemic era, the new restrictions have been a blow. For some, it was an economic death knell.
“We will be closed indefinitely,” said a sign on the locked door of a bar near the French Quarter, which accused the mayor of “the ever-changing politics.”
Most of the neighborhoods were virtual ghost towns after dark last week – and the city-wide take-out drink ban and the closure of traditional carnival gathering places in the French Quarter made them even more so. calm this weekend. The restrictions were enforced by barricades and police checkpoints.
“We try to be responsible and feel like New Orleans, but it’s a struggle,” said Doug Trager, manager of Maple Leaf Bar, in the Carrolton neighborhood of Uptown, who was forced to ‘cancel a series of concerts at social distance musical performances in a brewery with a large outdoor space.
Still, he added, there was more to the party than bare chests, pearls and parades. “We’re not going to let that 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 fluctuating restrictions over the past year have undermined the Maple Leaf’s best efforts to follow the rules. “Every time we try to find something to work with the mayor, it happens,” he said.
A few concert halls have sprung up in the city, sometimes in private homes, he said, but the threat of sanctions has driven much of the stage underground. “Musicians now have to perform in the alleys,” he says.
Much of the blame for the crackdown fell on weekend revelers who gathered on Bourbon Street, the city’s iconic hub for shoulder-to-shoulder party and debauchery. In recent weeks, rowdy videos of crowds, mostly without masks, have sparked fury on social media and at town hall.
Despite several large signs warning residents and visitors to “hide or lock themselves,” many of those who stepped outside last weekend ignored security protocols. A group of young women stood in a corner with matching silver sequined cowboy hats and white tennis skirts, but a few masks. In the street, visibly drunk men, also without masks, lifted their shirts to attract the attention of those throwing pearl necklaces from the balconies on the second floor.
At the start of last week, seven bars in the city had been closed for breaking social distancing rules. But many residents said they were penalized for the actions of tourists.
“We are the ones who are going to pay the price,” said Shel Roumillat, a costume designer, who added that the pandemic had taken a heavy emotional and financial toll. In typical years, she says, she made about 45 headdresses for parade chariot riders.
But the seasonal flow of preparations for Mardi Gras, which she equated with the city’s circadian rhythm, was now out of order. “We cannot share the rituals that are part of our way of life,” she said.
Dara Quick, the owner of She Comes In Peace, a costume shop and hair salon, said she felt “very conflicted” over the sale of the store’s iridescent, sparkly wigs and wacky headdresses during the pandemic. For the carnival, she said, the staff produced matching glitter masks to safely encourage joy.
“I still want to thrive,” she said, “but I don’t want to tolerate a reckless Mardi Gras either.”
Across the city, lively – albeit somewhat subdued – celebrations nevertheless took place. Hundreds of houses were colorfully decorated like “house floats”. JamNola, a seemingly designed ‘museum of experience’ for Instagram, has paid local artists, including Ms Roumillat, to outfit its many exhibits with Mardi Gras wreaths, psychedelic soda bottle chandeliers and a glittering alligator sculpture .
And one Saturday night this month, residents of a former mansion in the Irish Channel district hosted from their porch a socially distanced concert by a keyboardist singing classics like Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” A handful of masked people watched from the sidewalk and outside a bar across the street.
“It‘s a way of nourishing the soul,” said Barbara Rath, an infectious disease specialist who lives in the building. She said residents staged a few live musical acts during the pandemic, inspired by videos of Italians singing opera on their balconies last spring.
“I was like, ‘Well, New Orleans is way better for this,’” she said. “We have the architecture that allows you to do these things safely if you’re careful and don’t have too many people coming.”
Worried in particular about the health risks to black residents, who have been disproportionately disgusted and killed by the coronavirus in Louisiana and across the country, Mayor Cantrell urged the city’s Mardi Gras Indians to desist from walking the Mardi Gras.
The customs of the Mardi Gras Indians, black residents who hold three parades a year and dress in ornate costumes, date back over a century. It is generally believed that their traditions originated in a tribute to the American Indians who helped protect the escaping slaves.
Skipping the ritual altogether is not an option for Cherice Harrison-Nelson, 61, the great queen of India’s Mardi Gras flame keepers. She described the city’s cultural practitioners as “spiritual first responders,” and said her group planned to march in a socially distant procession through their neighborhood on Monday, greeting 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 pearl-encrusted African-inspired costume, a well-kept secret until her debut Monday morning ceremony.
“Nothing is worth my life, but nothing can stop me from doing this,” she said. “This tradition for me is the way I sew myself back to my ancestral homeland, one pearl, one feather, one stone at a time.