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.

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.

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.

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