NEW ORLEANS – Music blared from the courtyard of a French Quarter restaurant on Mardi Gras morning but nobody was there to hear it until Tom Gibson and Sheila Wheeler of Philadelphia walked out of their hotel’s nearly empty lobby.
“We were expecting a little bit lower key than the normal Mardi Gras,” Wheeler said. But empty Bourbon Street was a shock.
Coronavirus-related restrictions in New Orleans included canceled parades, closed bars and a near shutdown of rowdy Bourbon Street. That, and unusually frigid weather, prevented what New Orleans usually craves at the end of Mardi Gras season: streets and businesses jam-packed with revelers.
To be sure, some hardy lovers of the season braved the cold. Knots of people, some in costume and some carrying cups of hot coffee (sales of alcohol to go were prohibited) wandered the French Quarter.
On St. Charles Avenue, houses decked out as stationary “house floats” with giant mythical figures, circus animals or dinosaurs, drew handfuls of people snapping photographs. WDSU-TV captured a group of Mardi Gras Indians — African American organizations that for generations marched in brilliantly hued hand-beaded and feathered costumes — on a brief march through one neighborhood.
And satire survived. A group of masked revelers in one neighborhood, poking fun at the tight restrictions, pulled around a giant voodoo doll with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s face and dubbed her “Queen Destroya,” in images captured by The Times-Picayune'The New Orleans Advocate.
But, by any measure, it was a vastly diminished Mardi Gras.
Bourbon Street was eerily quiet in contrast to past years. Police barricades sat at the end of each block and officers were told to only allow access for residents, people who work in local businesses or hotel guests. The St. Charles Avenue median, usually swarming with parade lovers, was empty but for the occasional jogger or streetcar.
A group founded by the late jazz clarinet player Pete Fountain, the Half Fast Walking Club, gathered outside Commander's Palace restaurant as usual, but they did not march. Souvenir shops in the French Quarter were largely empty and staffers at some restaurants eagerly motioned for passersby to come in.
Gibson had been to Mardi Gras before, and remembered what it was like. “This whole street — you’d hardly be able to move," he said.
To the east, Mobile, Alabama, which boasts the nation's oldest Mardi Gras celebrations, had also canceled parades. The city was not locked down as tightly as New Orleans. Bars were allowed to open. But some downtown streets were shut down to allow for additional outdoor seating and more space for social distancing. Frigid temperatures that brought morning snow flurries helped keep down large crowds through early afternoon.
There was no snow in New Orleans but at 10 a.m., the temperature was 27 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 Celsius), with the wind chill making it feel like 19 (-7.2), National Weather Service lead meteorologist Phil Grigsby said.
Dave Lanser, trying to get into the spirit of the season, donned a luminescent green cape and a black mask with a sharp curved beak nose before heading to the quarter with a few friends.
“I’m going for the ‘plague doctor’ look,” he said.
“It’s hard to wrap my head around it,” the New Orleans lawyer said as he looked up and down a nearly empty Bourbon Street.
He lamented the effect the virus restrictions were having on businesses and workers. But he said restrictions were necessary.
“I don’t think there’s a way to safely do it this year,” he said. “So, I support canceling the parades, closing the bars, all that kind of stuff. It’s just kind of the reality of it.”
Earlier, Michael Bill was getting a fast-food breakfast from a takeout window just off Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter. He surveyed the empty street.
“The cold doesn’t bother anyone. It’s the COVID,” Bill said. He said he has been a ghost tour guide for 10 years but was furloughed because of business slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
He didn't blame Cantrell.
“The mayor’s doing the best she can,” Bill said.
Cantrell recently ordered bars closed. Even bars that had been allowed to operate as restaurants with “conditional” food permits were shuttered for five days that began Friday.
Various estimates showed hotels were likely to be far below the 90%-plus occupancy of most years. And city and state officials all but warned tourists away.
“If people think they’re going to come to Louisiana, anywhere, or New Orleans and engage in the kind of activities they would have pre-pandemic then they are mistaken and quite frankly they are not welcome here to do that,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a recent news conference.
Mardi Gras crowds last year that were later blamed for an early Louisiana outbreak of COVID-19.
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.