NEW ORLEANS — Revelers decked out in traditional purple, green and gold came out to party on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans’ first full-dress Mardi Gras since 2020. The fun includes back-to-back parades across the city and marches through the French Quarter and beyond, with masks against COVID-19 required only in indoor public spaces.
Parade routes are shorter than usual, because there aren’t enough police for the standard ones, even with officers working 12-hour shifts as they always do on Mardi Gras and the days leading up to the end of the Carnival season.
But with COVID-19 hospitalizations and case numbers falling worldwide and 92% of the city’s adults at least partly vaccinated, parades and other festivities are back on after a season without them.
Costumed partiers 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 just about every corner of the city, leading up to a ceremonial clearing of Bourbon Street at midnight.
Along Jackson Avenue in the city’s Central City neighborhood, crowds were bundled in blankets as they waited for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s parade, which started decades ago as a mockery of white festivities, with Black float riders in blackface and grass skirts. People wore sequined jackets, kids played football with throws they’d caught at previous parades and speakers on the back of a truck boomed with the sound of “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
“This is Christmas to me. I’d rather miss Christmas than Mardi Gras,” a man calling himself Bo Ski Love said as he waited for the parade with his son. Last year was “disappointing,” he said. He still cooked a turkey at home and drove around to see houses decorated like floats, but it wasn’t the same. He said he loves 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 was putting on gold, purple and green false eyelashes and taking photos with the group of girlfriends and family that she has gathered with to watch Zulu at the same spot for years. After spending last year celebrating at home and “in spirit,” it was good to be back to something closer to normal.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. We have been cooped up, quarantined, trying to be responsible for so long, and we’re still being responsible,” she said, noting that her group has been vaccinated and received their booster shots and has masks.
Mobile, Alabama, which calls itself the birthplace of Mardi Gras, also missed throwing a full-blown Carnival last year because of COVID-19, and some restaurant managers say they are still having a hard time filling jobs, leading to the odd sight of empty tables while people line up out the door in places. But music already was blaring downtown hours before the first Fat Tuesday parade as families used lawn chairs to stake out spots behind police barricades on Government Street, a main drag through the city.
The return of Carnival season has been a much-needed boon for business in New Orleans, where the famed restaurants and music venues were restricted or closed for months. The crowd on Sunday, when the huge Krewe of Bacchus paraded, “was a record for us in the 10 years we’ve been open,” said Thomas Houston, bar manager at Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar, located at the start of the truncated parade route.
Fat Tuesday is a state holiday in Louisiana, and Houston expected similar crowds if the weather holds, as well as on Ash Wednesday, when people following the Catholic tradition of meatless Lenten fare are out for seafood.
“It’s not just a fun money-making time but you get to see people who’ve been around for 10 years,” he said.
Hotel occupancy, though, is expected to be about 66%, down about 19.5% from 2020, said Kelly Schultz, spokesperson for New Orleans & Co., the official sales and marketing organization for New Orleans’ tourism industry.
Parades were canceled last year because officials realized that tightly packed crowds in 2020 had created a superspreader event, making the city an early Southern hot spot for COVID-19. Instead people decorated their houses to look like floats as a way to keep the Carnival spirit alive.
And “2020 was weird,” Houston said, because two people were hit by floats and killed in the week leading up to Mardi Gras and the mayor suspended use of multiple floats hitched behind one tractor.
“Also the coronavirus was sort of looming over us,” even though its presence wasn’t yet known in New Orleans, Houston said.
After Zulu comes the elaborate and fantastical floats of Rex, the self-styled king of Carnival, chosen by a group of high society, old-money businessmen. In other parts of town the Mardi Gras Indian tribes will be coming out after spending months working on their intricately beaded costumes. And the French Quarter is overtaken by members of smaller marching groups that dress in elaborate costumes.