If you ask a New Orleanian who Mardi Gras is for, they’ll likely paint you some version of a timeless picture: Locals and tourists standing shoulder to shoulder watching a parade roll by, competing for throws and drinking beers from the same cooler.
Each year a growing number of people mob the streets at the peak of Carnival season. Last year’s festivities drew more than a million visitors, and a recent study found the gatherings resulted in nearly 50,000 coronavirus infections.
To prevent another surge in cases, the city restricted this year’s celebrations, first by prohibiting parades and large gatherings and later by closing bars and entire streets. To set a good example, many krewes have taken the year off completely.
But that hasn’t stopped people from visiting — because Mardi Gras isn’t actually canceled.
The official line from the city has been that the holiday is “not canceled,” “just different” and Mayor LaToya Cantrell has actively welcomed visitors. At the same time, the city has instructed locals to celebrate the season at home with their immediate families.
Many see the city’s messaging as evidence of dangerous deference to tourists. This tension predates the pandemic and isn’t unique to Mardi Gras, but the collision of the two in 2021 has raised the stakes and an outcry.
Will Sutton, a native New Orleanian and columnist with The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate said the city has already lost too many people to COVID-19 and needs to do everything in its power to prevent further deaths. Welcoming visitors during Mardi Gras means taking on added risk.
“I understand that we’re trying to balance things for the good of the economy and public safety,’ he said,” but we don’t have a good economy without people.”
On a Saturday afternoon in early February, about half of the people in the city’s French Quarter were unmasked — openly defying the city’s mandate.
There were families with strollers, old couples, young couples, groups of friends, and plenty of revelers. They clustered outside bars advertising frozen daiquiris and corner restaurants selling pizza.
A group of middle-aged women drinking cocktails out of fishbowls stopped to catch Mardi Gras beads thrown from a balcony. One woman lost her mask in the process. It fell to the ground and she didn’t pick it back up.
Scenes like this one horrify Meg Maloney, a 24-year-old line and prep cook. For her, Mardi Gras typically means working long hours cooking regional favorites like boudin and crawfish for tourists.
“Sometimes it’s nice. You get off of a 13-hour shift and you go catch the end of the parade and have a drink with your co-workers,” Maloney said. “But now, most of us are going to be running for the hills because we don’t want to have a further risk of catching COVID.”
Maloney was exposed to the coronavirus at work in late January and took two weeks off without pay to quarantine. She said the city needs to do more to protect workers and compensate them for lost pay.
In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the city announced new restrictions and cracked down on enforcement, closing a number of neighborhood bars for violating COVID-19 restrictions.
But the same weekend the city closed three businesses in New Orleans East, it did little to break up crowds in the French Quarter.
At a recent press conference announcing new restrictions ahead of Fat Tuesday, Cantrell made clear that visitors were still invited and reminded them to follow the city’s rules.
“We are a welcoming city,” Cantrell said. “However, if you are coming here to party and to hang out and to drink and to spread COVID you do not need to come and you should not come.”
The Friday before Mardi Gras, the city closed all bars and set up police checkpoints in tourist-heavy areas. It also fenced off the Claiborne underpass, a local gathering spot.
Maloney supports the new round of restrictions but thinks they don’t go far enough.
“All of these people that the mayor invited to town are in hotels and they’re going to be hoarding restaurants,” Maloney said in the days leading up to Mardi Gras.
In protest, The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance, of which Maloney is a member, organized a motorcade through the French Quarter protesting the city’s approach to Mardi Gras.
About a dozen cars made their way down Bourbon Street bearing signs reading “Worker Needs Before Corporate Greed” and “Are The Festivities Worth The Fallout?”
Members of the Hospitality Workers Alliance allege unsafe working conditions — patrons who won’t wear masks and business owners who don’t enforce capacity limits.
New Orleans is fueled by the hospitality industry. In a typical year, sales and property taxes account for more than 40 percent of the city’s operating budget. Now, most of that money is gone.
While locals argue the city is doing too much to cater to tourists, industry leaders take the opposite stance. The city’s main tourism booster, New Orleans & Company, has objected to the latest round of Mardi Gras restrictions as “highly problematic.”
New Orleans & Company is a tourism organization that serves as a marketing agency for the city and is funded in part by tourism tax dollars.
In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio before the new restrictions were announced, New Orleans & Company CEO Stephen Perry said local restaurants and hotels are exceedingly safe and the best way to protect businesses is to let them stay open.
“If you shut them down and you’re not paying people, then you’re not eligible for [the payroll protection program],” Perry said. “You’re talking about the abject failure of hundreds of small business people and their inability ever to reopen.”
Right now, the city is losing between $120 million and $130 million a week, according to Perry. By the end of the pandemic, he expects 30 percent of the city’s restaurants to have permanently closed.
Before the new wave of restrictions, businesses had hoped for a Mardi Gras bump. About 40 percent of hotel rooms were booked for the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, though that number has since dropped.
For much of the pandemic, hotel occupancy has been in the single digits. During last year’s Mardi Gras festivities, it was above 90 percent.
After videos circulated of crowds of largely unmasked people on Bourbon Street clutching to-go drinks and dancing to music, the city said locals and college students were responsible.
The narrative that locals are the driving force behind unsafe Mardi Gras interactions has also been advanced by New Orleans & Company.
When it comes to the crowding in the Quarter, Perry said the people causing trouble are New Orleanians, not tourists.
“Those are locals, our friends and our neighbors and colleagues that come from a 30-minute drive radius in,” Perry said.
While there’s no definitive accounting of who parties where, locals are not known to frequent the Quarter. Many see the area, particularly Bourbon Street, as a tourist trap.
But Perry said it’s the city’s visitors who find the party district unappealing. He cited the expense of New Orleans hotel rooms and said current guests are here to dine at expensive restaurants, visit museums, and go antique shopping.
“Those that come to the hotels are very likely coming to do celebratory dinners … and do they want to be able to take a drink and to walk around? I think there’s no question,” Perry said. “Most of them are not going to want to be in the middle of a gigantic throng.”
Perry acknowledged that the mere existence of visitors could contribute to density issues, a particularly troubling issue when dealing with an airborne virus.
“But from a statistical perspective, they will be so far outnumbered and outweighed by the locals that are coming to celebrate and just cut up and kind of go crazy,” Perry said. “I personally am not worried about the danger of the visitors who are coming, I’m more worried about ourselves.”
Will Sutton, the New Orleans native and local columnist disagrees. He said he’s seen tourists and locals flout the city’s rules. There’s a delicate balance to keeping people safe, and Sutton said adding more tourists could prove disastrous.
“It’s like having a house party,” Sutton said. “If you have a house party, it’s your party. We like seeing people come and have a good time, but who wants to have a party and have a bunch of people get sick?”
Sutton loves Mardi Gras. He loves parades and parties and seeing Mardi Gras Indians. He loves marching bands, especially the one he used to play in, St. Augustine’s Marching 100.
He loves standing by the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras and hanging out with the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club for the day. But he said he loves his family even more — his brother and sisters and his 90-year-old dad.
“Why would I go places where I’m risking getting the virus and bring it back to share?” Sutton said. “That’s not smart. Matter of fact, that’s silly and stupid.”
Most New Orleanians agree with Sutton. They’ve taken the pandemic seriously, in most cases because they’ve already lost someone — they’ve lost too much.
Last week, Jay Banks, a City Council member and former king of Zulu, spoke in support of the mayor’s new restrictions.
“For those of you who have sent me stupid emails criticizing me on my stance on this, I get it. Perhaps I am paranoid. Perhaps I am overly cautious. But my personal list of dead people is 23. Twenty-three dead people from COVID,” Banks said. “So when you tell me that I’m overly paranoid, then I will proudly wear that.”
Banks and Sutton both agree that Mardi Gras is not dead, New Orleanians have simply been forced to adapt.
Sutton is a huge fan of the city’s house floats and has been eating plenty of king cake. Banks encouraged residents to celebrate the holiday at their home by barbecuing or having a crawfish boil with their immediate family.
Many residents have jumped on the city’s house float movement, started by Megan Boudreaux, a 38-year-old insurance claims manager who normally marches with the Krewe of Chewbacchus.
When Boudreaux started the house float movement, she issued a “parade at home order,” instructing people to “participate where you are, parade at home, even if home is in Ohio.”
But that hasn’t stopped travel sites from promoting house floats as a tourist attraction. That’s the last thing Boudreaux wants.
“We want people to visit under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances,” Boudreaux said. “It would be irresponsible of us to say, ‘Yeah, please come visit New Orleans.’ We want people to be safe.”
Devin De Wulf, founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, has spent the pandemic raising funds to support the city’s frontline workers and culture bearers.
“The longer that COVID goes on, it means that our musicians can’t work, our bars can’t be open, that more of our citizens, our fellow New Orleanian, are dying of this terrible virus,” De Wulf said. “It’s really counterproductive for us to be open to folks who are not going to do what’s right by our people.”
Instead of catering to tourists, De Wulf thinks the city should establish more of a safety net for neighborhood businesses.
De Wulf took matters into his own hands when his krewe started selling Bean Coins, glass beans worth $10 that can later be redeemed at participating bars and businesses.
Half of the money raised is immediately given to struggling businesses as a form of life support, while the other half goes into a reserve used to recruit more businesses. During the first day of bean sales, they raised more than $20,000.
De Wulf said rather than elevate its own people, the city has at times done the opposite, using community resources to cater to tourists. He points to the city’s decision to spend $500,000 on a national New Year’s Eve broadcast as a glaring example.
“That is the kind of the epitome of us prioritizing outsiders instead of ourselves,” De Wulf said. “We really need to fix that.”
Maloney, the line and prep cook, said she’d also like to see the city do more to invest in its own people.
The bulk of the city’s hospitality workers make less than $15 an hour. Close to 90 percent of restaurant workers are working for less than that rate.
“If the city prioritized Mardi Gras for working class people, we would be making living wages and we would be making holiday bonuses during Mardi Gras,” Maloney said. “People who make tips may make a little bit more money, but those of us who work for hourly wages, we’re just miserable.”
It isn’t just hospitality workers who are suffering. Many New Orleanians work low-wage jobs and have seen their hours reduced during the pandemic. Others have lost their employment entirely.
Those dependent on tourism and the city’s Mardi Gras economy have been particularly impacted. Many of the city’s musicians and artists went without work for months before the city’s house float movement created new opportunities for employment.
Boudreaux, with the Krewe of House Floats, said many don’t realize both the time and money that locals invest to create the magic of Mardi Gras.
“New Orleanians are very familiar with the fact that Mardi Gras seems like a free party when you’re coming from the outside, but the people of New Orleans are the ones who are really paying for that,” Boudreaux said.
Residents spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars to craft homemade costumes and purchase throws to hand out to strangers. Parades are planned by individual krewes and financed by member dues and fundraising.
Given the financial devastation the pandemic has caused for many New Orleanians, some traditions may be muted next year. Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. of the Wild Magnolias said there will likely be fewer Mardi Gras Indians out in the streets next year.
In a typical year, Mardi Gras Indians, largely composed of the city’s Black working class, spend thousands of dollars to create spectacular costumes inspired by Native American motifs.
“A lot of people struggle to make these suits,” Dollis said. “I’ve seen Indians’ lights get turned off the next day because they want to mask Indian.”
That was before the pandemic. Now an even greater number of Indians are struggling financially due to pandemic-related unemployment. There’s a crowd-funding campaign to help finance next year’s suits and Dollis is doing his best to keep the faith.
The Krewe of Red Beans launched a crowd-funding campaign to employ unemployed Mardi Gras artists and has been supporting the city’s culture bearers. Since last March, they’ve raised more than $2 million.
“What we have to do is recognize that the strategic advantage of our city is its people, because the people create the thing that attracts the tourists, which is our culture,” De Wulf said.
On Lundi Gras and Fat Tuesday, the city experienced freezing temperatures. Sutton called the unexpected weather a “blessing” that would hopefully keep visitors away.
While Mardi Gras 2021 ended quietly, the city’s culture was still on display. Baby Dolls danced in the streets amid snow flurries and members of the SkinsNBonez walking krewe banged drums and sang to honor the dead.
There were a few masked Indian spottings and a brand new suit crafted by Demond Melancon, Big Chief of the Young Seminole Hunter tribe, appeared at the former site of a Confederate statue.
Underneath the suit was a sign reading “The People Are King.” It’s the Krewe of Red Beans’ own Mardi Gras theme and captures the spirit of this year’s festivities, but it’s been true for many, many years before: The people of New Orleans are Mardi Gras. Everyone is invited to the party, but it’s still New Orleans’ party.