NEW ORLEANS — Jeremy Stevenson didn’t know if he could do it this year.
Normally, Mr. Stevenson is a chief in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Tradition. He spends an entire calendar year making an elaborate suit that pays homage the Native American tribes that took in people who escaped slavery.
But after the city’s devastating coronavirus spike following Mardi Gras in 2020 and the Covid-related death of his cousin Keelian Boyd last year at age 37, Mr. Stevenson could barely look at the beads and the feathers he needed to make this year’s suit.
Then, last spring, he heard a voice, his cousin’s, telling him, “You’ve got to do this.” He began spending long days sewing while keeping an eye on Covid-19 case counts, wary of any rise that could prompt the city to go into lockdown and cancel Mardi Gras again.
And just after noon on Tuesday, as members of his tribe, the Monogram Hunters, shook their tambourines and beat their drums, Mr. Stevenson emerged from a corner building in the city’s Tremé neighborhood wearing a five-foot-tall crown with five arrows of hot-pink feathers framing his head and a sequined suit of lime green, purple, blue and white, ornamented with crystals from chandeliers, shimmering silver broaches and oval prisms of glass.
“What you see in this suit, shining like jewelry, that’s from Dump’s spirit floating in me,” he said, using Mr. Boyd’s nickname and fighting back tears.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras was a celebration of joy, defiance and celebration. On Tuesday, Mardi Gras returned to New Orleans with one eye on the past two years in a city particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and the other looking forward to strutting and parading and moving on.
Last year, all Carnival parades were canceled, and celebrations were scaled back to small, same-household gatherings and decorated porches known as “house floats.” But this month, New Orleans’s Carnival celebration returned in full swing, raising hopes about the city’s resurgence from devastating pandemic losses.
Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman with New Orleans & Company, the city’s tourism association, hesitated to estimate the total number of visitors to the city but said that parade routes have been packed every day. “It’s almost like having missed it, people are really clamoring for it and hungry to be out there again,” Ms. Romig said. The city usually hosts a million people. According to hotels, bookings are approaching preandemic levels.
This is a celebration as Covid-19 hospitalizations continue their fall from an Omicron-fueled increase in January. Hospitalizations are down to 586 from more than 3,000 in August.
It is too soon to predict if this trend will continue. Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, stated that hospitalizations would not rise due to Mardi Gras celebrations.
Still, Professor LaVeist thought that the event could serve as “an important test,” with impacts far beyond New Orleans. “It will give us all a good idea of what life with Covid could look like — within the new normal,” said Professor LaVeist, who added that he cautiously attended one small parade and wore a medical mask at all times.
The familiar sounds and sights of Carnival have echoed throughout the town for weeks. Tourists, mostly, have flocked to the eight-block stretch Bourbon Street lined with bars, restaurants, and strip clubs. Bartenders poured quarts rainbow-colored daiquiris into plastic cup. People threw beads to waiting arms from overhead balconies. Preservation Hall, a French Quarter music venue, sold several shows per day.
It seemed that Covid-19 had been forgotten by the city.
The effects of the pandemic were hidden beneath the surface of the celebrations. Craft-supply shops struggled to find safety pins and feathers from wholesalers with backed-up supply chains. Musicians and artists created stunning Carnival masterpieces in memory of loved ones who died from the coronavirus.
But not everyone felt the scramble worth it.
“I think people were willing to take risks and have Mardi Gras if they could pay their bills,” said Angela Chalk, a New Orleans native who runs a local environmental nonprofit and has a background in public health, noting the economic payoff tourism offers after the financial hit of two slow years. “But give us three weeks. Then we’ll know if the risk was worth it.”
City hall staff doubled down to enforce rules and implement more layers in monitoring and expand testing.
Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the department, said she had spent nearly a year consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and national public-health experts, hoping to answer one question: “If we have Mardi Gras, how can we make sure it’s not the tragedy it was?” — referring to 2020, when the city became an early pandemic hot spot after the coronavirus spread, unchecked, within unaware, vast crowds.
“Two years ago, Mardi Gras was like free publicity for a germ,” said Glen David Andrews, a jazz trombonist. He recalled the almost constant sound of sirens as ambulances carried people to hospitals. These soon filled up to capacity. The city had the highest death rate per capita in the country.
“Nearly everyone I knew was grieving someone,” said Mr. Andrews, who often showed up outside funeral services to play a solo version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” as the coffins of fallen musicians, family members and friends were carried to hearses.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell reinstated strict mitigation measures in January to limit the spread of the virus. This included an indoor mask mandate and the requirement that anyone who watches, eats or drinks indoors must show proof they have been vaccinated or have had a negative coronavirus test. Krewe members who rode on floats and attended balls had to provide similar proof to their captains.
Dr. Avegno and her staff distributed 20,000 home-testing kits as they walked parade routes. Visitors arriving at New Orleans airport were offered tests and vaccinations at a booth near the baggage claim. The city also installed wastewater monitoring in two of their treatment plants earlier this month to monitor any rises in overall viral levels.
Both Dr. Avegno and Professor LaVeist agree that cases are likely to rise as crowds fill the city’s streets, hotels, restaurants and bars.
Still, despite virus-related concerns and sorrow — or perhaps because of them — crowds seemed happier than ever to be along the St. Charles Avenue route in parades leading up to Mardi Gras day.
This month at Preservation Hall, the managing director, Mike Martinovich, 52, said he felt a “degree of guttural enthusiasm” from performers in recent shows, many of whom had been unable to play indoors in front of crowds for nearly two years.
The Bourbon Street party will end at midnight on Tuesday with six-horse mounted officers from the New Orleans Police Department, who ride down the street each year, being followed by the mayor on foot and a phalanx police officers.
But for the city’s health department, Mardi Gras won’t be over until all the data is in. The next morning, on Ash Wednesday, all the city’s drive-through and walk-up testing sites will be open and staffed up.
“We want people to be able to test as soon as they feel a sniffle,” Dr. Avegno said, adding, “We expect a bump in cases, but if it’s not a significant bump, the effect on our hospitals will be manageable. And that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Source: NY Times