It’s a very different Mardi Gras than the one I traveled to New Orleans for last year. Instead of hosting cookouts along the city’s parade route or dancing with neighborhood brass bands, most locals are adjusting to the absence of Mardi Gras at home.
According to the mayor’s office website, Mardi Gras 2021 is “NOT CANCELLED, JUST DIFFERENT.” (That being said, the January and February parades have been officially canceled.)
“I would go so far to say I’m devastated,” Candice Wright, one of the generous New Orleans natives I spent time with during Mardi Gras 2020, told me over the phone. “You’ve been here. Living on the parade route, it’s just become part of our regular routine. During parades, people come over, people who are in town we don’t really get to see stop by.”
At 6 p.m., instead of having her home filled with loved ones, her front yard full of camping chairs staking parade-viewing spots, Wright was doing legal homework and figuring out something healthy to make for dinner.
“And, you know, neither of those things are Mardi Gras,” she says.
Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, says locals saw this coming months ago. Hassig predicted a normal Mardi Gras would be impossible after the city’s summer’s surge.
“It’s very clear that there’s no way we could have the kinds of crowds we would normally have,” says Hassig, who normally rides in the all-female Krewe of Muses parade. “Even for the locals to be gathering in the density that they would for parades — given the level of infection that’s present — there’s absolutely no way.”
A new study shows that a coronavirus infection at Mardi Gras 2020, probably from just one out-of-state visitor, led to up to 50,000 cases. By March, New Orleans was one the country’s worst-hit hot spots. While the number of new cases has dropped since January, Hassig says the more transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom has reached the city, causing new concerns that warrant Mardi Gras’s cancellation.
With official events off (or shifted online) and a freezing weather report, locals are adjusting their expectations this year and figuring out ways to commemorate the holiday safely.
New Orleans native Angelique Dyer, Wright’s best friend and another pivotal local from my trip last year, says one of her favorite things about her city is its ability to make something joyful against the odds.
“We have always made a way out of no way,” she told me. “So we’ve got Mardi Gras decorations up in our house. I decorated my mom’s table with Mardi Gras stuff like it’s still happening, but it’s in our house.”
Here are more local tips for paying homage to Mardi Gras at home this year.
Tune in to Mardi Gras virtually
Last year, Arthur Hardy told me Mardi Gras is New Orleans’s biggest party and a gift to the world. He’s been publishing his Mardi Gras Guide for 44 years, and the pandemic didn’t stop him this year.
“I thought it was important,” says Hardy, whose family has been in New Orleans since 1830. “We’ve had a great reaction to it, and people are buying it as a covid collectors’ item.”
According to Hardy, there’s plenty of programming for people to watch from home this year. A highlight is Mardi Gras for All Y’all, a three-day event featuring local talent. That includes performances from parade icons, music from jazz bands, school bands, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and chefs like Toya Boudy.
“They’ve got a total of five hours of Mardi Gras vignettes, interviews with 90 people, Hoda Kotb, Harry Connick Jr.,” Hardy says. “They spent a fortune putting this thing together and it’s really going to be good. They’re hoping to get a worldwide audience to see what they’re missing and hopefully come back next year.”
Hardy’s guide has more virtual Mardi Gras experiences listed more options.
For a more nostalgic option, Dyer plans on watching old Mardi Gras documentaries. Wright is going to put on brass band music for the ambiance.
Get into costume anyway
As an outsider, one of my favorite parts of Mardi Gras was wearing and seeing costumes. Some of the locals I spoke with, even if they’re staying home, are planning on wearing festive outfits this year.
On Tuesday, Hassig may put on a wig and one of her old Muses costumes and walk around her block.
Wright is planning on going even more festive than in years past.
“I will definitely be wearing my Mardi Gras polo shirt with purple, yellow and green stripes,” she says. “I also have a purple, green and yellow fleece vest, and usually I don’t combine the two, but hey, we can do stripes on stripes. That’s no problem.”
And as for Dyer? “I plan on putting on every piece of purple, green and gold I have.”
To channel that energy yourself, wear whatever hats, sparkles, feathers, glittery, wigs, bedazzled clothing or accessories you can find around your house.
There’s still king cake — and lots of it
To kick off Mardi Gras every year, local writer Wayne Curtis and three friends would host a king cake party on Jan. 6, the first day king cakes are widely available.
“People bring them in from all over,” Curtis says. “We have maybe 30, 35 different king cakes spread out on a table for people to sample over the course of the day. A couple bowls of punch.
Due to the pandemic, Curtis’s king cake party was obviously canceled. But Curtis and many others are still enjoying the marquee Mardi Gras food nonetheless.
“King cake parties are a little different this year, too, but this is the biggest carnival element that we can ship safely countrywide,” Hardy says. “The bakeries here in town are having record business because of that.
If you didn’t order one ahead of time already, you may be able to find a king cake at your local bakery or supermarket should they be commemorating Mardi Gras this year. For example, my D.C. farmers market was selling mini ones. You can also be ambitious and make one yourself.
Connect with your community, safely and creatively
My biggest takeaway from visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras last year was that its essence is spending time with others. Not being able to gather with loved ones is one of the most disheartening parts of this year’s festivities.
There’s no sugarcoating it. This is not a happy time, but we will survive and we’re going to come back strong.
“It’s a people, parties, street event and we can’t do any of that,” Hardy says. “There’s no sugarcoating it. This is not a happy time, but we will survive and we’re going to come back strong.”
The bars are closed, and while many homes have ornate, float-inspired decorations for the occasion, the energy of the city is much quieter than the electricity of a normal Mardi Gras period.
“You’d have a lot more people dressed up out in the streets, everyone yelling from their porches ‘happy Mardi Gras,’ and a lot more connection on the street level,” Curtis says. “This year people are out looking at the house floats, but it’s more passive.”
Curtis may make a punch, bottle it up and pass it out to friends and neighbors to avoid encouraging congregating.
And instead of going inside Wright’s house to drink champagne and eat Popeyes, Dyer has driven by just to wave to her best friend from the safety of her car. If weather permits, they may try to meet up in a backyard for a short visit, or just spend time together over the Internet.
“I’ve been talking with Angie about doing a Zoom kind of party, inviting the people who would usually come by to just pop in, have a toast, things like that,” Wright says.
Mardi Gras is about celebrating a sense of community. Celebrate your own by checking in with loved ones over Zoom, FaceTime, rotary phone, whatever’s possible. Just make contact with the people you cherish — don’t forget about the king cake.
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