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Mardi Gras is back, and the catharsis is palpable

Revelers are flooding the streets for the first full-scale Mardi Gras in two years, providing relief from the long pandemic and escalating conflict in Ukraine.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — It’s Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, when a nonstop flood of costumed participants and parades roll through the Crescent City’s streets along with the blaring horns and percussion of marching bands, dancing, singing and carousing to mark the final day of Carnival season.

This year’s boisterous celebration, which will be accentuated by Fat Tuesday's mild temperatures – the high will be 70 – and clear blue skies, is the first full-dress event of its kind since 2020, when Mardi Gras was later identified as one of the worst early Covid-19 superspreader events in the U.S. 

Tuesday is a state holiday, and the traditional final day of revelry and Catholic catharsis before the 40 days and nights of self-discipline and fasting for Lent begin, starting with Ash Wednesday.

The final day of Carnival kicked off well before first light with the Skull and Bones Gang, a group traditionally made up primarily of African Americans in the increasingly white-gentrified Treme neighborhood. The gang’s many members, painted to resemble skeletons and carrying chicken bones, ventured from house to house throughout the neighborhood, singing messages of love and good health to all as they went.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the first float krewe, or club, to parade Tuesday morning, as it always is. A krewe that began as a mockery of white festivities, its Black members wear grass skirts, blackface and throw decorated coconuts into the crowd. Zulu is followed by Rex, made up of wealthy businessmen, and the Krewe of Elks Orleans, a seemingly endless procession of homemade floats on long flatbed trailers whose riders fling mountains of plastic beads into the crowd.

Late Tuesday night, mounted police will ride throughout the French Quarter just before midnight, shuttering bars and extinguishing lanterns in the traditional closing down of revelry before Ash Wednesday and Lent begin. Many bars, particularly if the crowds are substantial, will turn their lights and music back on once the police and their horses have moved on up the block, as the ceremony is mainly in keeping with Fat Tuesday tradition. Seafood restaurants the city over will be packed Wednesday to kick off the season’s fast from meat.

Following two difficult years of the Covid-19 pandemic and a sudden escalation of bloodshed in Eastern Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the traditional catharsis of the season is on full blast this year. Live music, dancing, singing, screaming, laughing, chanting and many other forms of expression are filling streets across the city, though the revelry is primarily local, as tourism is down.  

Still, the crowds are massive.

Masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are required only indoors this season, with Covid-19 home tests making an appearance in the Muses parade last Thursday, furnished through the New Orleans Health Department.

Nearly 80% of adults in the Big Easy have been at least partially vaccinated, according to local data, and Covid-19 cases worldwide have fallen sharply since January’s peak.

People are out and ready to celebrate.

“The good news is we are in a much better place than we were two years ago,” New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno said in a recent interview with NPR.

“We really knew next to nothing about the virus or what it would become [during Mardi Gras in 2020]. We had no tools to detect it and we had no tools to fight it at our disposal," she said. "So, we were completely vulnerable. And so, while Carnival didn’t start the pandemic in the United States, it is unquestionably an event that sparked an awful lot of infections and deaths. And, you know, nobody wants to repeat that.”

Avegno went on to say she feels “encouraged and glad” that the worst of the local omicron surge seems to be in the past.

“Fortunately, we have far more knowledge than we used to. We have detection systems and we have ways to protect ourselves from a high-risk event,” Avegno told NPR.  

Parade routes this year are shorter than usual because of a police shortage, even with officers working 12-hour shifts, as they regularly do during Carnival season.

Hotel occupancy is still only 66% of what it might have been, down 19.5% from 2020, according to Kelly Schultz, spokesperson for New Orleans & Co., the official sales and marketing organization for the New Orleans tourism industry, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Parades were canceled last year to avoid the tightly packed crowds that enabled Covid-19 to spread so rapidly in 2020.

Still, despite the celebratory crowds and merriment in 2022, the stress of two years of a pandemic and escalating bloodshed in Ukraine have been palpable throughout the celebration. But so is the feeling of Carnival’s catharsis.

“I honestly feel lighter today,” one Carnival participant, Evelina Jagminaite, a Lithuanian-American whose grandparents were executed by Bolsheviks when the country was illegally annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940, said after having danced during the smaller walking Monster Parade in the Bywater neighborhood Friday night.

“This whole thing with Ukraine is connecting so many of us from the region with a trauma that goes back to World War II and before,” she said.

Jagminaite said she’s been worried sick about her family and the whole Baltic region of Eastern Europe, which was once under Soviet control. 

“I want to scream,” she said. “It feels so good to scream.” 

Those who can't make it to New Orleans can watch the parades live all day Tuesday through a series of webcams throughout the city.

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