New Orleans announced on Tuesday that there would be no parades during the February 2021 Mardi Gras celebrations, bowing to the near-certainty that the coronavirus pandemic will remain a public health crisis through the winter.
The festive, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that typically line the city’s streets for weeks each February would in this case have the potential to become superspreader events, running far afoul of the city’s current limit of 250 people at gatherings. The city has solicited ideas for how to safely celebrate under the current coronavirus restrictions, but the typically joyous, colorful affairs that attract seas of tourists will not go on as usual.
“We know that what we celebrate next year is not going to look like it’s looked in any other year,” Beau Tidwell, a city spokesman, said at a news conference.
City officials were careful to specify that Mardi Gras, a religious holiday in the Roman Catholic Church, was not being canceled; there were still likely to be smaller events planned. But they would bear little resemblance to the enthusiastic bacchanals long associated with the city.
Dan Kelly, president of the Krewe of Endymion, a social club that organizes a parade, told nola.com that the restrictions came as “a total shock.”
Putting on the parades, he said, “means a lot to the city, and it means a lot to the people of New Orleans.”
Access to Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street, two hubs of all-day-into-late-night revelry, would remain open, but would be subject to capacity restrictions and whatever Covid-19 guidelines apply at the time.
New Orleans currently requires the wearing of masks in public and maintaining six feet of social distancing. As in most states, Louisiana is currently battling a third wave of the virus, with cases sharply increasing and hospitalizations ticking up. The state has had more than 207,000 reported cases and 6,000 deaths as of Wednesday.
The city’s decision came as families are wrestling with how to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, as experts’ suggestions to avoid large gatherings collide with holiday traditions. Experts fear the family gatherings could supercharge the spread of the virus, especially if family members are traveling for the holidays.
Bourbon Street became a hot spot for the virus earlier this year, and experts say Mardi Gras may have accelerated the spread. Even though the packed celebrations happened weeks before the area’s first documented case, Dr. F. Brobson Lutz Jr., a former health director of New Orleans and a specialist in infectious disease, said in March that the Mardi Gras celebrations were “a perfect incubator at the perfect time.”
In a deeply optimistic world, it’s possible an effective, nationwide effort to thwart the spread of the virus could take hold before February. But most experts say precautions will probably still be necessary well into 2021, and Mr. Tidwell said that while officials would be happy to ease the restrictions, they were planning for the likelihood that it won’t be possible.
“It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a massive sea change between now and the middle of February,” he said.