No parades, limited gatherings and shuttered bars. A normally raucous Bourbon Street almost devoid of people. No sign of crowds who traveled far and wide from other places. And absolutely frigid weather on top of it all.
It doesn’t sound like much of a Mardi Gras Day, does it? Beyond the imagination of anyone just a year ago, that’s the reality on the ground in New Orleans in 2021.
City officials definitely did not want the holiday turning into a Covid-19 superspreader event.
“Please, I’m begging you, please do not attempt any large gatherings,” New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said at a news conference last week.
Bourbon and Frenchmen streets were ordered closed for the day. Parades, second lines and other gatherings were prohibited.
CNN affiliate WDSU reported live from the French Quarter on Tuesday morning, in what’s normally Party Central.
The scene was eerie – a blocked off, almost empty Bourbon Street except for police vehicles and a bundled up reporter who looked like he was dressed for a winter day in the Northeast instead of a festive day along the Gulf Coast. At 11:30 a.m. CT in New Orleans, it was just 27 degrees. By 2:40 p.m., the temperature barely budged, up to 29 degrees.
The famed New Orleans restaurant Arnaud’s took to Twitter on Monday to ask about a scene of emptiness: “Bourbon street, is that you?”
Party like it’s 2021
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the closings and despite the weather, the plucky locals of one of America’s favorite party and food cities didn’t give up on celebrating Mardi Gras. Resourceful and resilient, residents and businesses found creative ways to colorfully carry on.
Scott Wood, owner of Courtyard Brewery in the Lower Garden District, told CNN on Tuesday: “I’m working right now, filling crowlers for very few customers (all costumed of course) as we are only allowed to be open for package beer sales to go.”
Wood got inventive given the city’s restrictions.
“Early this morning, I texted half the people in my phone Happy Mardi Gras and then drove the entire main parade route down St. Charles Avenue, blaring music from WWOZ, our local nonprofit jazz and heritage radio station, down into the French Quarter.
“I stopped at Bourbon Street and stepped out and took a picture. I always end up on Bourbon at some point on [Mardi Gras] day and I wasn’t going to give up that tradition, even if it was only for a moment by myself. The entire Quarter was devoid of pedestrians at 9:30 a.m. when I was down there, but I waved to the police who were guarding the barricades on Bourbon and told them Happy Mardi Gras.
“Everyone I’ve seen today is jovial. It may be cold but it’s still Mardi Gras Day and that spirit is alive within us. We are no strangers to celebrating amidst and in spite of chaos.”
New Orleans chef and TV host Kevin Belton tweeted out scenes of a festively decorated city along with a safety message:
“Dr. John, Mardi Gras Indians, musicians and music all to celebrate this out of the ordinary Mardi Gras in a safer way. #yardigras #mardigras2021 #nola #mardigras #covidmardigras2021 #nolafreeze #beon4 @WWLTV”
Home is where the party is
Knowing their famous parades were off the table for 2021, NOLA residents had a brilliant response.
More than 3,000 homes were transformed into stationary “floats” that spectators could proceed past from a safe distance – an effort dubbed Krewe of House Floats, complete with maps.
All across town, papier-mache or cardboard and foil flowers of every hue, plus bunting of purple, green and gold and strands of beads the size of beach balls, adorned the homes where so many have been in retreat from the coronavirus since just after last year’s Mardi Gras.
“Mardi Gras by no means is dead; it’s just different,” said City Councilman Jay Banks last week. He cast his own house – already painted yellow and black – with other trademark representations of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the city’s preeminent Black Carnival organization, over which he once reigned as king.
Bars closed citywide on Friday, February 12. They’ll be allowed to reopen on Wednesday, February 16, which is Ash Wednesday.
CNN’s Michelle Krupa, Melissa Alonso and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.