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NEW ORLEANS – Chants of “Mardi Gras is back y’all” could be heard as wall-to-wall crowds greeted the Krewe du Vieux in the French Quarter this weekend. Despite the pandemic, New Orleans is moving forward, albeit with a cautious approach, toward Mardi Gras. Fifteen parades across the New Orleans area are rolling this weekend. The next two weeks are considered the height of the festivities, which end on March 1 – Fat Tuesday.
“It definitely is a jumpstart to get things moving again. We’ve hibernated long enough. Time to start spreading your wings and enjoying life,” one of the revelers yelled as she marched on.
Spectators enjoy the Joan of Arc Parade in the French Quarter on Jan. 6. It marked the beginning of Carnival Season in New Orleans after parades were canceled last year. This year, parade participants are required to be vaccinated or show a negative covid test. Photo by OffBeat Magazine / Kim Welsh
This will be the first time in nearly two years that throngs of revelers will descend upon the city. The city’s world-famous parades did not roll in 2021 because of the pandemic — the first time they were canceled in 42 years. The year before, health officials believe, Mardi Gras was an unknowing super-spreader event in the early weeks of the pandemic. Mardi Gras has an economic impact of more than $1 billion for the city of New Orleans, bringing in 1.4 million visitors, according to a 2020 study by Wallethub.
READ MORE: As New Orleans parades out vaccine rules, restaurants wonder if they’ll make it to Mardi Gras
By Fat Tuesday, 55 parades will have rolled through the region at a time when CDC guidance says the city’s threat level is at “risk of a severe outbreak,” though COVID numbers have dramatically decreased in the last month, from a peak case average of 1,368 in early January to 111 in the last seven days. Positive test rates have dropped from 32 to 6 percent.
In early January, Mayor LaToya Cantrell promised “without a doubt, we will have Mardi Gras in 2022. We know Mardi Gras and our Carnival season is good for our soul.”
With two weeks to go, the mayor is still optimistic that it will be safe to invite the world to the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.” Doing it safely comes with challenges. The pandemic has left the city with a shortage of police and EMS workers, a strained health care system, and rising crime rates. As a result, parade routes have been shortened.
On Monday, Cantrell unveiled a public safety plan at a news conference, flanked by health and safety officials. “We are ready and prepared,” Cantrell said. A key indicator from the lodging industry shows it will be a comeback year: Hotels report 80 percent occupancy for Mardi Gras weekend — still about 10 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels but far higher than this time last year when parades were canceled and occupancy dropped to as low as 30 percent.
“It does give us some sense of bringing back some normalcy. At the same time, it is very important for everyone to recognize and realize we are not under normal times,” Cantrell said while downplaying EMS and police staffing issues. “We have not mentioned anything about staffing shortages that will have a direct impact on our ability to respond to the needs of residents and or visitors,” Cantrell said.
NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said the department is “adequately staffed” and starting Friday, officers will switch to 12-hour shifts. In addition, 100 state police, 10 federal ambulances, and other federal assistance sharing threat intelligence will arrive this weekend.
Crow face plague doctors march through the streets of the French Quarter for the Joan of Arc parade on Jan. 6 which marked the kick off of Carnival Season after being canceled in 2021. Photo by OffBeat Magazine / Kim Welsh
Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city’s health director, said hospitals are more full than they ever are during Mardi Gras. As of Feb. 16, only 48 of the 433 ICU beds in Region 1, which includes the Greater New Orleans area, are available, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. As a result, medical sites will be placed along the Uptown route — which includes the biggest stretch of paraders from the Mississippi River along the famed tree-lined St. Charles Avenue — for those who may need medical attention during the festivities. The city is also working to have a rapid testing site at the airport, and workers will be giving out at-home testing kits along parade routes.
Avegno also said part of the reason New Orleans can celebrate is because it has some of the highest vaccination rates in the country; 84 percent of adults are fully vaccinated and nearly 44 percent of kids ages 5-17.
The Crescent City also has some of the country’s toughest COVID restrictions, including an indoor mask mandate and a vaccination or test requirement. Anyone 5 years or older must be fully vaccinated or present a negative COVID test to enter businesses and restaurants. Vaccination requirements extend to float riders and marching groups. Combined, Avegno believes these policies provide an adequate level of protection to pull off Mardi Gras safely.
“The good news is that we are back enough to be able to have all our parades on the street again. Even if the routes are a little shorter and maybe not as many visitors come, who cares?” said Arthur Hardy, a fifth-generation New Orleanian whose Mardi Gras Guide has long been recognized as an authority on the New Orleans tradition. “The main thing is we are going to celebrate. We need it for our pocketbooks and our souls. “
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club lost 20 members to COVID. The Krewe fully embraced tough COVID mandates for parade participants. Photo by Reuters
The 1,100 members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a majority African American krewe, are “all in and signing on 100 percent” with the city’s strict Carnival requirements, Zulu President Elroy James told the PBS NewsHour. A krewe is a social organization that puts on a parade or ball for Carnival season. Most Krewes select a royal party each year; including a king, queen, and often dukes and maids.
Zulu was hit hard by the pandemic, losing 20 members to COVID, including past “royalty” and community leaders.
Zulu member LaSalle Rattler was the first to die, just days before Mardi Gras in 2020 on the night of the Zulu ball. Leaders say his death from COVID is proof that the virus was present in the city and being spread at events before Mardi Gras. “Once it started, one or two deaths a month followed,” James added.
“That whole experience was unbelievably challenging. Things were happening at a rapid pace. Members were dying,” James said. “We couldn’t gather at traditional funerals to celebrate the lives of our members. We had members in the hospital and we didn’t know if they’d be coming out. We closed down all operations and did all we could to preserve the lives of members.”
This year’s theme is “Zulu Salutes Divas and Legends.” James says it will be “a big healing moment.” Last year was the first time Zulu did not parade since World War II.
“We will celebrate for all those we lost. We’re celebrating for those still here. We are celebrating the return of a tradition,” James told the NewsHour.
“It will be a celebration of what’s possible and what’s to come in light of what we’re dealing with. It will be a rebirth for the city of New Orleans. It will be the rebirth of Carnival. I think we’ll have many, many symbolic expressions related to this Mardi Gras. It will mean different things to different people, it just depends what people are dealing with and what they’ve dealt with during the past two years.”
The stage is set at Gallier Hall in New Orleans for Mardi Gras’ return. It’s the traditional spot for parade toasting. This year, Rex, King of Carnival, celebrates 150 years. Photo by Roby Chavez / PBS NewsHour
Rex, the King of Carnival, issued the traditional proclamation on Jan. 6, the first day of Carnival, inviting his “subjects” from across the world to travel to New Orleans on Mardi Gras. For the organization’s 150th anniversary, James Reiss III, a representative of the Rex organization, reiterated the need for COVID consciousness.
“Having a Mardi Gras and a successful and healthy Mardi Gras is as important to this region’s mental health as it is important to the economic health of this city,” Reiss said. “Let’s hope we get a ton of visitors here and they spend a ton of money – and they do so safely.”
Susan Fendlason and her daughter marched with the Krewe of Joan of Arc on Jan. 6 in the season’s first parade, through the French Quarter. It’s a mother-daughter tradition that couldn’t be missed, even with Omicron raging at the time. Both Fendlason and her daughter said they were fully vaccinated, per the city’s requirement for parade participants. Fendlson admits there was some uneasiness.
“Even in the Krewe, I was hearing of people backing out or people were getting COVID and couldn’t come at the last minute,” Fendlason said following the parade. “I was worried it wouldn’t be like it had been in the past. When we got there, there were so many people. Everyone was in very high spirits and very excited.”
Amelia Fendlason (l) poses for pictures with fellow Knights from the Krewe of Joan of Arc which was New Orleans’ first parade for the 2022 Carnival season. Photo by Susan Fendlason / Krewe of Joan of Arc
Though COVID’s presence could not be ignored, political satire and poking fun at current events, as always, play an important role in Mardi Gras celebrations. At the front of the parade, some costumed as medieval plague doctors promised to “sweep the plague away” and carried brooms and signs that read, “Be Gone Foul Plague.” Parade-goers say it was the perfect medicine to ease worries.
“It was just a reminder that life will keep going on. It felt normal. It felt real,” Fendlason said. Both Fendlason and her daughter remain COVID-free.
Avegno said the city has been planning since last summer for the return of Carnival and the main message is: “if you are going to come, then there is a higher standard.”
“We have the knowledge and multiple mitigation measures that we are employing to the highest capacity. I think there is always the tension…trying to look around all the corners,” Avegno told the NewsHour. ”
Spectators line Royal Street in the French Quarter to watch Krewe du Vieux as Carnival season rolls forward. By Fat Tuesday, 55 parades will roll. Last year, all were canceled due to COVID. Photo courtesy of M. Grey Sweeney
Participants seem willing to roll with the new rules, including New Orleans’ the St. Augustine High School Marching 100, the self-proclaimed “Best Band in the Land.” When spectators hear the horns and drums of the high-stomping Purple Knight band, it will be a signal that Mardi Gras is back. The band will march in nine parades this season; including the Zulu Parade. According to the school, band members are “100 percent in compliance.”
“Some of our students have lost loved ones from COVID and we have some families that are still displaced due to Hurricane Ida. We had a fire at our gymnasium. We had a few setbacks the last two years,” Mel Cordier, St. Aug’s director of communication and marketing, told the NewsHour. “So, something like this is an opportunity for our young men to go out there in unison to join the rest of the community; to take their mind off of the worry if only for a few hours.”
Band leaders liken this year’s return to when the city came together following Hurricane Katrina.
Members of the St. Augustine High School band march down St. Charles Avenue in 2013. Band leaders say students will be 100 percent in compliance with strict parade requirements as they participate in 9 parades. Photo by Sean Gardner / Reuters
“Anytime we get an opportunity to suit up and perform, we are always excited; especially now that we’ve gone without it. We miss it. We can’t wait. This year will be the best,” drum major Joshua Miriban told the NewsHour. “The music unites old and young, no matter the race. When our band strikes up, everyone claps and cheers together with a big roar.”
Despite the optimism, pulling off Mardi Gras safely will be a tall order, especially since some “Super Krewes” are in excess of 3,000 members. There are also all the balls and entertainment, including Endymion’s Extravaganza, where 18,000 revelers will be partying it up with Diana Ross and Maroon 5 in the Caesars Superdome.
Hardy, who has published the Mardi Gras Guide for more than 40 years, says parades and the city as a whole are ready for the challenge.
“This is a high bar to cross. It’ll be a tall order for any city but if any city can do it, we can do it,” Hardy said.
“There are no bad guys here. The bad guy is COVID. Everyone is doing their best to make sure we can celebrate and to do it safely. Because, to do it and spread a disease, would be rather stupid; we all know that.”
Roby Chavez is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of New Orleans. @RobyChavez_504
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