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What Mardi Gras Looks Like During The COVID-19 Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

New Orleans officials are preparing for Mardi Gras by closing bars citywide and setting up checkpoints in the French Quarter. Almost a year ago, New Orleans emerged as an early COVID-19 hotspot after Carnival celebrations served as superspreader events. Despite this year's new restrictions, the city is still welcoming tourists, and that's led to pushback from locals. Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO reports.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: New Orleanians typically spend the weeks between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday eating, drinking and partying. Last year's festivities drew more than a million visitors, and a recent study found the gatherings resulted in nearly 50,000 coronavirus infections. This year, there are no parades, and many locals have pledged to sit this season out. But that hasn't stopped people from flocking to Bourbon Street.

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JUHASZ: Videos have circulated of largely unmasked crowds clutching to-go drinks and dancing. And despite admonishments from the city, people are still breaking the rules. On Saturday afternoon, about half of the people in the city's French Quarter were unmasked, openly defying the city's mandate. Revelers stopped to catch Mardi Gras beads thrown from balconies, and one middle-aged woman lost her mask in the process. It fell to the ground, and she didn't pick it up. Scenes like these horrify Meg Maloney, a 24-year-old cook. While Mardi Gras is known as a season of fun, she's usually stuck working.

MEG MALONEY: Sometimes it's nice. You get off of a 13-hour shift, and you go catch the end of the parade and have a drink with your co-workers or whatever. But now, I mean, most of us are going to be running for the hills because we don't want to have a further risk of catching COVID, right?

JUHASZ: In January, she was exposed to the coronavirus at work and took two weeks off without pay to quarantine. Maloney says she wants the city to do more to protect hospitality workers. Here's New Orleans mayor, LaToya Cantrell.

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LATOYA CANTRELL: Know that when it comes to our health and our people, especially our hospitality workforce, I'd rather be accused of doing too much than doing too little.

JUHASZ: She's already announced new restrictions for Mardi Gras weekend in response to recent large gatherings in the French Quarter. Starting today through Mardi Gras Day on Tuesday, all bars will be closed citywide, tourist-heavy areas will have police checkpoints to prevent crowding and the Claiborne Corridor, a local gathering spot, will be fenced off. The city relies heavily on tourism. In a typical year, sales and property taxes account for more than 40% of its operating budget. Now, most of that money is gone.

STEPHEN PERRY: We estimate we're still losing about $120 to $130 million dollars a week.

JUHASZ: That's Stephen Perry of New Orleans & Company, a tourism organization that serves as a marketing agency for the city. Before this new wave of restrictions, businesses had been hoping for a Mardi Gras bump. For much of the pandemic, hotel occupancy has been in the single digits. During last year's Mardi Gras festivities, it was above 90%. Perry says local restaurants and hotels are exceedingly safe, and the best way to protect businesses is to let them stay open.

PERRY: If you shut them down, you're talking about the abject failure of hundreds of small business people and their inability ever to reopen.

JUHASZ: While some of the crowds on Bourbon Street have been locals or college students, Will Sutton says tourists are a big part of the problem. Sutton is a New Orleans native and a columnist for the local paper. He says city leaders should tell everyone to stay home for Mardi Gras.

WILL SUTTON: It's like having a house party. If you have a house party, it's your party. And if it's your party, you decide who gets to come. We like seeing people come and have a good time at our party, but who wants to have a party and have a bunch of people get sick?

JUHASZ: Sutton says he's pleased with the new restrictions and hopes people stay home so they can celebrate next year. For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS SONG, "BE EASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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