“I love Mardi Gras”: the spirit of carnival invades New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — Revelers dressed in traditional purple, green and gold came out to party on Shrove Tuesday for New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras since 2020. The fun includes back-to-back parades across the city and marches through the French Quarter and beyond, with COVID-19 masks required only in indoor public spaces.

Parade routes are shorter than usual as there are not enough police for standards, even with officers working 12-hour shifts as they always do on Shrove Tuesday and the days leading up to the end of the carnival season.

But with COVID-19 hospitalizations and case counts dropping globally and 92% of the city’s adults at least partially vaccinated, the parades and other festivities are back after a season without them.

“I love Mardi Gras,” said Todd Hebert, who was dressed in a purple jacket with sequined lapels, a pale blue tutu with pink stripes and a black hat with little horns on top and a fringe pink feathers as he rode the Mississippi River ferry on Tuesday to join in the festivities.

“It’s the best time of the year. Last year was sad,” he said.

Costumed revelers gathered before dawn to see the North Side Skull & Bone Gang, dressed as skeletons, wake up the city’s Treme neighborhood, reminding everyone of their mortality. From then on, it was “Let the good times roll,” with celebrations in almost every corner of the city, leading to a Bourbon Street clearing ceremony at midnight.

Along Jackson Avenue in the city’s Central City neighborhood, crowds were huddled in blankets waiting for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s parade, which began decades ago as a parody of white festivities, with black riders in blackface and grass skirts. People wore sequined jackets, children played football with throws they had caught in previous parades, and loudspeakers in the back of a truck blared to the sound of “Mardi Gras Mambo.”

“It’s Christmas for me. I’d rather miss Christmas than Mardi Gras,” a man calling himself Bo Ski Love said while waiting for the parade with his son. Last year was “disappointing,” he said. Said he saw houses decorated like floats, but it wasn’t the same. He said he loved just about everything about Mardi Gras: the crowds, the atmosphere, the people, the happiness.

“It’s the biggest party in the world,” he said.

Further down the street, Nikia Dillard donned gold, purple and green false eyelashes and took photos with the group of girlfriends and family she had gathered to watch Zulu at the same location for years. After spending the last year celebrating at home and “in the spirit”, it was nice to get back to something closer to normal.

“It’s a wonderful feeling. We’ve been locked down, quarantined, trying to be responsible for so long, and we’re still responsible,” she said, noting that her group has been vaccinated and received their boosters and are wearing masks.

Mobile, Alabama, which calls itself the birthplace of Mardi Gras, also missed having a full-fledged carnival last year because of COVID-19, and some restaurant managers say they still have struggling to fill jobs, leading to the eerie sight of empty tables as people line up outside the door in places. But the music was already ringing through the city center hours before the first Mardi Gras parade as families used lawn chairs to mark out spaces behind police barricades on Government Street, a main thoroughfare in the city.

The return of carnival season has been a much-needed boon to business in New Orleans, where famous restaurants and music venues have been restricted or closed for months.

Tuesday’s crowd could set a Mardi Gras record for Superior Seafood & Oyster Bar, a 10-year-old restaurant located at the start of the truncated parade route.

“It’s like that. With the weather and the general feeling of a somewhat normal New Orleans,” general manager John Michael Rowland said during the noon rush. “Mardi Gras is a symbol of who we are who we are and we welcome everyone.”

Hotel occupancy, however, is expected to be around 66%, down about 19.5% from 2020, said Kelly Schultz, spokeswoman for New Orleans & Co., the organization sales and marketing official for the New Orleans tourism industry.

The parades were canceled last year because officials realized tight crowds in 2020 had created a superspreader event, making the city one of the South’s earliest hotspots for COVID-19. Instead, people decorated their homes to look like floats to keep the carnival spirit alive.

After Zulu come the elaborate and fantastical floats of Rex, the so-called Carnival King, chosen by a group of high society and old fortune businessmen. In other parts of the city, Mardi Gras Indian tribes will come out after spending months working on their intricate beaded costumes. And the French Quarter is overtaken by members of small marching parties who dress in elaborate costumes.

Max Materne and his wife were strolling through the French Quarter in their mushroom costumes with their two children – jokingly called the spores – being towed in a wagon. Materne, who is from New Orleans, said the day was the culmination of what has been a great carnival season for him and his family.

“I wish everywhere had Carnival because it would be really good for the whole world to feel that right now,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Mobile, Alabama, contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ruskygal.

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