No parades, no parties: how New Orleans is celebrating Carnival this seasonMaya Stanton

The New Orleans Carnival season kicked off in early January, and the city-wide party looks a whole lot different than it has in years past. From creative, socially-distant takes on festival traditions to virtual events galore, here’s how the Crescent City is handling its signature celebration. 

In a normal year, an estimated million-plus people participate in the New Orleans’s Carnival action, and though this year’s visitor estimates are still up in the air, it’s hard to imagine the hordes descending on the city in similar numbers in the midst of the pandemic. Mardi Gras parades have been canceled due to COVID-19, masks are required in public across the state, and New Orleans is operating under restrictions – no gatherings of any kind outside of your household, outdoors or in; no indoor seating at bars or breweries; no singing, karaoke or wind-blown instruments indoors. 

Members of the Zulu Crewe performing in a New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade
The city’s Mardi Gras parades are off  this year © Bob Sacha/Getty Images

Modified festivities are still taking place, but when the King of Carnival issued his annual proclamation at the start of the season, as he’s done since 1872, he made sure to acknowledge the unusual circumstances surrounding the 2021 festivities. “We are Saddened, and send our Deepest Condolences to All who have suffered Loss, and encourage All to follow the Guidance of Those who seek to keep Our Subjects Safe, that We might Celebrate Again Together,” the edict reads. “We trust, in Our Absence, that Our Subjects will find ways to Safely Celebrate the Joys of this Carnival Season, Preserving our Traditions in Anticipation of Their Joyous Renewal in 2022.”

A colorful krewe floats through the streets of New Orleans during a Mardi Gras parade
In non-pandemic times, New Orleans krewes toss their throws from the floats into the crowds of clamoring onlookers © GTS Productions/Shutterstock

Without parades, the party could have ground to a halt, but several krewes have come up with clever ways to pay homage to tradition while keeping the crowds at bay. Instead of tossing their throws – the beads and other collectible trinkets launched from the parade’s floats – in person, the Krewe of Bacchus has launched a Mardi Gras app that lets spectators join a mini-parade and catch them virtually, while the Funky Uptown Krewe hosted a scavenger hunt along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line for theirs, transmitting clues via a dedicated Instagram feed.

A home decorated to look like a parade float honoring healthcare workers
Members of the Krewe of House Floats are decorating their homes for Mardi Gras © Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

But perhaps the most inventive approach comes courtesy of the Krewe of House Floats, a new krewe some 7500 members strong that’s decorating homes to resemble parade floats. The concept was born on social media and quickly spread, with dozens of neighborhood sub-krewes springing up throughout the region and beyond; there’s even one for expats outside of the city limits. A map of the participating locations will drop on February 6, “creating an opportunity for spectators to drive on by and remain safe from others” on their own personalized parade route, krewe creator and New Orleans resident Megan Boudreaux said in a press release. 

A man at a desk in front of multiple screens, laughing and eating wine and cheese
The legendary Commander’s Palace is hosting a Mardi Gras wine-and-cheese “extravaganza” via Zoom in February © Commander’s Palace

For those in town, the city’s restaurants and cafés are operating at 25% capacity for indoor dining, with some offering takeout specials to feed the whole krewe. Virtually, there’s plenty going on as well: In the build-up to Mardi Gras day on February 16, the New Orleans School of Cooking is hosting two sold-out king-cake baking classes via Zoom, and the legendary Commander’s Palace is going online as well, with a wine and cheese party – a Mardi Gras “extravaganza” – featuring a curated selection of refreshments that ships to your door when you RSVP. Parkway’s famous roast beef po’boys are even on Goldbelly.

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