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Doing/Undoing/Redoing Carnival in New Orleans in the Time of COVID-19

By Martha Radice, Dalhousie University and Visiting Scholar, New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, Tulane University

I left my field site in New Orleans very quickly. On Mardi Gras day, February 25, I was one of many thousands of people be-glittered, masked, and revelling in the streets, marvelling at the costumes and parades. Over the next three weeks, I carried on with fieldwork while following the epidemic from afar. By Thursday, March 12, as community spread in the USA became apparent, I was questioning the wisdom of my planned trip home to Halifax at the end of the month, in case I got quarantined and was unable to return to the field. On Friday, March 13, the Mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, announced that all St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day parades were cancelled. By the morning of Sunday, March 15, I had booked a one-way ticket for the very next day. This was partly at the urging of Victor Pizarro, a dear New Orleanian friend who loves the city, but knows from experience as a community bike activist, among other things, just how dysfunctional it can be. “Things are going to get really bad here,” he said. “You should go home and be with your boo and your cats. What if they close the borders?”

Indeed, by Saturday, March 14, the Canadian federal government had advised its citizens abroad to return to Canada, and Dalhousie University, where I work, had suspended all non-essential university travel. My planned six months of fieldwork studying carnival in New Orleans were abruptly cut short to a little over two. That evening, with some trepidation, I went to a dinner party feast that a friend had spent days cooking for. I hesitated to go, but I knew it was the only chance I would get to say goodbye to some of my closest friends there. I cried over my herring.

Since I got back to Halifax, I have been self-isolating (with my boo, who stocked up on groceries before I arrived), thinking about how to do fieldwork from a distance, revising my REB protocol, and obsessing, like everyone, over the news posted on social media. As Victor predicted, things have got very bad, very fast in New Orleans, as cases of COVID-19 spiralled from 95 on March 16 to 1480 on March 30. US national news media, who had focused on New York and the Northwest, finally turned their spotlight onto New Orleans, reporting that both infection and death rates per capita were extraordinarily high. It now appeared clear that the novel coronavirus was already circulating in New Orleans during the final weeks of the carnival season, which ended on Mardi Gras day.

Also circulating is a narrative that blames carnival for the spread of COVID-19. During carnival, over a million visitors flock to the city to join residents taking pleasure in parades and parties. Space is tight and sociability is intimate: people share food and drink with friends and strangers; they jostle to catch throws from passing floats; they dance down crowded streets; they take the relatively scarce bathroom facilities as they find them. Dr. Rebekah Gee, former health secretary of Louisiana, was quoted by Reuters saying, “People were in close contact catching beads. It is now clear that people also caught coronavirus.” The headline of that article is accusatory: “New Orleans emerges as next coronavirus epicenter, threatening rest of South.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pointedly asked Mayor Cantrell whether in hindsight she should have cancelled Mardi Gras. Had she received any “red flags” from leaders at the federal level, she said, she would have pulled the plug on the festivities.

New Orleanians have pushed back against this victim-blaming narrative. They point out that no other city in North America was cancelling social gatherings during February: even Italy only closed schools and universities in early March. They point out, moreover, that there is a puritan, moralistic tone to this narrative that conveniently ignores the structural reasons that make the city vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, such as poverty, racism, rampant gentrification/airbnbification, high incarceration rates, uneven access to healthcare and high-quality education, and over-dependence on the tourist industry, which pushes millions of people through the city every year and puts many locals into high-contact service work. The meme I saw posted on Facebook, reproduced here, sums up the absurdity well.

Meme summing up the absurdity of blaming Mardi Gras for COVID-19 spread. Source unknown, posted publicly by a friend on Facebook. Reproduced with permission of the Facebook poster.

Scapegoating carnival also ignores the ways that New Orleans’ cultural practices strengthen the city’s capacity to respond to a crisis. The social bonds that people make through their participation in carnival are helping everyone get through the pandemic. The Krewe of Red Beans, whose members parade in costumes painstakingly decorated with beans and pulses, has been raising money to buy food to deliver to frontline healthcare workers, thereby supporting local restaurants that are trying to get by serving takeout only, as well as musicians, who are being paid to deliver the food. Another krewe, the Société des Champs Elysée, captained by David Roe, is stepping up its commitment to feed the hungry on Sundays at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. Nine women’s walking krewes have joined forces to coordinate crafting of homemade masks for medical workers.

Masks made by Jeannie Detweiler, who has distributed about 100 so far to family, friends, and neighbours and is making more for medical workers. Source: Jeannie Detweiler. Reproduced with permission.

Less formally, I see people whose connections are partly forged through carnival and public culture coming together to help each other in many ways. A private Facebook group shares gardening advice online and trades plants and seeds on doorsteps and porches. Musicians and performers and their fans make up a little bit for lost gigs with livestreamed gigs and virtual tip jars. Rahn Broady, an educator and gardener, has been leaving fresh produce on his porch for people who have been put out of work by the pandemic. Michael Dominici, who hosts a radio show on WWOZ and usually works as a waiter at one of New Orleans’ most famous restaurants, is cooking and delivering meals three or four times a week for 10-20 people, primarily out-of-work burlesque dancers, sex workers, and servers, using food donated by a produce purveyor as well as his own money. Parade captain Ann Marie Coviello, a school librarian, has started a YouTube channel of people reading books to children called the Silver Linings Librarian. The pandemic reveals people’s social ties in new ways.

Posting publicly on Facebook to promote the Krewe of Red Beans’ campaign, carnival float designer Caroline Thomas attributed New Orleans’ strong community response to parade culture:

“We spend so much of our time out in the streets, socializing with friends and making new ones. We join krewes and spend our Saturday nights hot gluing together over a pot of beans or building some mini float in a friend’s garage, learning the simple pleasure of coming together as a group to create something […]. But krewes aren’t just about the party.”

It is hard to say how COVID-19 will affect carnival in New Orleans in the long term. It has already taken the life of one of its most beloved figures, Ronald W. Lewis, who founded the museum of African American parading traditions, The House of Dance and Feathers, at his home in the Lower 9th Ward. He wrote a book of the same name with the collaborative ethnography organization The Neighborhood Story Project. Mr. Lewis’s book and this organization were among my first introductions to New Orleans culture, and I visited the museum just a week before Mardi Gras. I am so very sorry he has passed. Normally, someone of Mr. Lewis’s stature would be sent home with a big public jazz funeral parade, a second line reflecting his expansive social networks. Instead, a small private funeral took place for immediate family while others posted their memories and tributes to Mr. Lewis on social media.

We do not know when large social gatherings, whether funeral parades or carnival parades, will be permitted again. In the meantime, parade-makers, artists, and cultural workers will draw on their carnival networks and imagination to craft personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as the masks they usually make, and to feed their friends, families and neighbours.

Carnival 2021 is likely to look and feel very different from 2020. Some elements may be cancelled, but others may be recalibrated to foster carnivalesque intimacy at a hygienic distance. The creativity that carnival unleashes every year and the social ties it forges will, I think, give rise to new ways of expressing deep joys and sorrows in New Orleans.

Real names of non-public figures have been used with permission.

Featured image caption: Costumed revellers on Mardi Gras Day, February 25, 2020. Source: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee, a photographer based in New Orleans who I work with on this project, Reproduced with permission.

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