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A season of joy -- and caution -- kicks off in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Vaccinated, masked and ready-to-revel New Orleans residents will usher in Carnival season Thursday with a rolling party on the city’s historic streetcar line, an annual march honoring Joan of Arc in the French Quarter and a collective, wary eye on coronavirus statistics.
Carnival officially begins each year on Jan. 6 — the 12th day after Christmas — and, usually, comes to a raucous climax on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls on March 1 this year. Thursday’s planned festivities come two years after a successful Mardi Gras became what officials later realized was an early Southern superspreader of COVID-19; and nearly a year after city officials, fearing more death and more stress on local hospitals, canceled parades and restricted access to the usually raucous Bourbon Street.
This year, the party is slated to go on despite rapidly rising COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.
In what has become a traditional kickoff to the season, the Phunny Phorty Phellows will gather at a cavernous streetcar barn and board one of the historic St. Charles line cars along with a small brass band. Vaccinations were required in keeping with city regulations and seating on the streetcar was to be limited and spaced. And, in addition to the traditional over-the-eye costume masks, riders were equipped with face coverings to prevent viral spread.
Larger, more opulent parades will follow in February as Mardi Gras nears and the city attempts to leaven the season’s joy with caution.
“It was certainly the right thing to do to cancel last year,” said Dr. Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist who also is a member of the Krewe of Muses, and who rides each year on a huge float in the Muses parade. “We didn’t have vaccines. There was raging and very serious illness all over the place.”
Now, she notes, the vaccination rate is high in New Orleans. While only about 65% of the total city population is fully vaccinated, according the city’s statistics, 81% of all adults are fully vaccinated. And the overall percentage is expected to increase now that eligibility is open to younger children.
And, while people from outside the city are a big part of Mardi Gras crowds, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s anti-virus measures include proof of vaccination or a negative test for most venues. “The mayor has instituted a vaccine requirement and/or negative test to get into all the fun things to do in New Orleans — the food, the music,” said Hassig. She adds, however, that she’d like to see a federal requirement that air travelers be vaccinated.
Sharing Hassig’s cautious optimism is Elroy James, president of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a predominantly Black organization whose Mardi Gras morning parade is a focal point of Carnival. Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 was blamed for the death of at least 17 of Zulu’s members. Compounding the tragedy: Restrictions on public gatherings meant no traditional jazz funeral sendoff for the dead.
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