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New Orleans again embraces Mardi Gras — with constraints

One year after a pandemic-wary city canceled its famous carnival, the parades and at least some of the revelers are back.

Performers celebrate during this year's Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras Parade through the French Quarter in New Orleans. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — Mules don’t parade in most cities. Mules also don’t usually trot to pounding disco while adorned with glitter. But in this city a few days before the pinnacle of Mardi Gras? It happens.

The pandemic shut down Mardi Gras here in 2021, a rare occurrence in the local event’s 165-year history, but the party is back in a big way this weekend, and Madison Blanchard LaBombard, holding the reins of Hank the mule in one hand and carrying an American flag high in her other, couldn’t be happier. She and her riding group are part of eight parades just this weekend.

“New Orleans is not the same without Mardi Gras,” she said.

Still, there are visible changes: Parade routes are shorter and, breaking with tradition, most now follow the same route instead of spreading into different neighborhoods. Some of the biggest musical stars have stayed away. So, too, have many tourists: Hotel occupancy this Carnival season is about 80 percent of what it was in 2020, according to the city’s tourism bureau, though the full hit won’t be known until after Tuesday.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) cited dangerously high covid rates in her decision last February to call off parades and limit public gatherings — a precaution to avoid repeating the dismal outcome of Mardi Gras 2020, which became the nation’s first superspreader event of the pandemic. In its wake, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival, two other blockbuster events on the annual calendar, were scratched. Both are set to return this year.

Past coverage: New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras during the pandemic, in photos

The absence of Mardi Gras struck “a huge economic and emotional blow,” said Kelly Schulz, senior vice president of communications for the visitors bureau, New Orleans & Company. In 2019, the city broke records as 19 million tourists spent $10 billion. “Pretty much all of that was lost” in 2020 and 2021, Schulz said. Rebuilding has been slow.

For a city whose economy depends on restaurants, cocktails, parading and jazz, pulling the plug on Mardi Gras a second year in a row seemed out of the question.

“The reputation that New Orleans has as a good-time town traces back to Mardi Gras,” said Errol Laborde, a local Mardi Gras historian who believes the mayor had little choice but to allow the festivities. “It’s that reputation that ultimately sells the city year-round — not just for people coming to Mardi Gras, but for people booking conventions and others making long-term travel plans. That reputation is very, very valuable to the city.”

But with covid a continuing public health threat, precautions and other issues have made this Mardi Gras very different. In December, the city announced it was trimming routes of its biggest parades because of a police shortage. The number of officers on the force is now under 1,100, according to the Police Association of New Orleans. That’s far below the city’s goal of 1,600 officers.

To compensate, the police department instituted 12-hour shifts for this final weekend through Tuesday, Mardi Gras day. The state sent 100 troopers as support. The federal Department of Homeland Security even gave Mardi Gras a heightened assessment rating, making the city eligible for extensive assistance from the FBI and other agencies.

New Orleans remains the strictest city in the South for coronavirus mandates, with either proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test required to enter bars, restaurants and indoor event spaces. Indoor masking is still a requirement, too. A spokeswoman for the mayor said the city will reevaluate its policies after Mardi Gras concludes.

The new normal has changed what the revelers on floats are tossing to the crowds. In addition to the usual plastic medallions, stuffed animals and other trinkets, spectators at the Krewe of Muses parade on Thursday caught boxes of coronavirus rapid tests, courtesy of the health department.

One of this season’s greatest comebacks was Krewe of Endymion, the mammoth parade that can last nearly five hours. Double- and even triple-decker floats moved toward downtown Saturday night, each a confection of blinking lights, LED graphics, animated king-size figures and more than 3,000 masked riders. Among the scores of children and adults lining the route to experience the sensory overload was Anita Radosta, born on Mardi Gras day in 1946. This weekend is “a blessing,” she said. “It’s in your heart and soul.”

For a city where tradition is paramount, it’s significant that pandemic repercussions continue to affect the 185-year-old Antoine’s, a French Quarter landmark and the oldest family-run restaurant in the country. Its dining rooms are lined with photographs of Mardi Gras krewes dating back more than a century.

Rick Blount, who represents Antoine’s fifth generation, said his workforce is down to less than half the 285 people he employed during Mardi Gras 2020. Just days ago, one social club’s party of about 1,200 people had to be trimmed to 750 because he simply didn’t have the staffing.

He’s mystified about why many people aren’t returning to work at his establishment and others across town. He partially blames the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, as well as Cantrell’s decision to cancel Mardi Gras last year.

The city’s economy was like “a fire hose” that was suddenly turned off, Blount said. And it can’t easily be turned back on. “It’s only dripping,” he said. “Over time, it’ll drip faster. It’ll continue to improve, but you have to grow a whole new economy from scratch.”

Antoine’s has faced tough times before. Like New Orleans itself, the restaurant survived the Civil War, Reconstruction, Prohibition, the Great Depression and two World Wars. Not to mention a succession of deadly hurricanes, notably Katrina in 2005 and Ida last August. Blount was “thrilled” the city made what he felt was the right decision to accommodate Mardi Gras this year.

Rebirth, he noted, is the story of New Orleans.

“Every time I want to feel sorry for myself, I have to laugh at myself and say, ‘C’mon, how hard can it be?’”