NEW ORLEANS - "Our Big Chief told us he doesn't want us out there this Mardi Gras because of COVID," Aaron "Flagboy Giz" Hartley told VOA. "He said it wasn't safe for our members or for the public watching us."
Until this year, Hartley took part in a festive New Orleans tradition dating back to the 1800s, the Mardi Gras Indian. In a unique intermingling of African American and Native American cultures, scores of Black paradegoers don colorful renditions of some elements of Native American garb.
"There's nothing like it in the world," said Hartley.
February 16 is Fat Tuesday, which literally translates to "Mardi Gras." For Catholics in many parts of the world, the day represents one final celebration before the more solemn six-week period known as Lent.
Perhaps no place in the world celebrates the day more raucously than New Orleans. In a normal year, you'd find Mardi Gras Indians like Hartley with their elaborate suits made of beads, feathers and sequins. You'd find colorful, thematic floats the size of small buildings rumbling down oak-lined avenues as masked "Krewe" members toss beads, cups, decorative coins (and just about everything else you can or can't imagine) to hundreds of thousands of screaming, costumed onlookers packed on the street.
You'd see and hear dozens of marching bands high stepping behind the floats, and you'd be delighted by a smattering of dance krewes — comprised of members of all ages and skill levels — with playful and often sexually suggestive names.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put all of that on pause, to the sorrow of countless locals.
"It's the dopest [best] part of the richest culture in the culture in the country," said Hartley. "We gotta do something. You can't just cancel Mardi Gras."
On November 17, citing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans due to the coronavirus, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell announced all parades in the city would be canceled. Last year's Mardi Gras took place days before COVID-19 cases grabbed the public's attention and those festivities are believed to have made New Orleans an early hotspot for the virus.
This year, after several large gatherings on New Orleans' famed Bourbon Street — fueled to some degree by visitors — the mayor announced she was also closing the city's bars during one of their busiest times of the year.
"I understand the decision," said Cole Newton, owner of local bar Twelve Mile Limit. "People would have gotten sick and died, and no amount of temporary economic boost would have been worth it."
While New Orleanians acknowledge that holding Mardi Gras as usual could lead to a public health catastrophe, the economic hit is painful for service industry workers like bartender Kristin Boring.
"It makes my stomach drop to lose more money," Boring said. "But I understand it's for the best. It's just a tough situation."
A different kind of Mardi Gras
"The thing about Mardi Gras is that it's not put on by a single person or organization," said New Orleans resident Laura Plante. "It's organized by individual people. That's what makes it special."
In the wake of the decision to cancel parades, residents almost immediately began proposing new, safer ways to celebrate.
Megan Boudreaux, a 30-year-old insurance adjuster with no Mardi Gras leadership experience, was one of those people. A few days after the mayor announced the cancellation of parades, she tweeted a joke that if revelers weren't allowed to ride floats and throw beads at stationary onlookers, she would just decorate her home like a float and throw beads at random passersby.
What started as a joke has grown into a phenomenon. Approximately 3,000 homes — mostly in the New Orleans area, but with a few as far away as Saudi Arabia and Australia — have been decorated as Mardi Gras parade floats. The movement, called "Krewe of House Floats," has transformed the city.
"It went way beyond anything I imagined it could be months ago," Boudreaux said, "and every time I think it's peaked, a new house float pops up and becomes a new favorite."
Walking through the city's many neighborhoods, onlookers will find everything from modest houses with Carnival float-themed flowers and beads, to mansions with massive octopus tentacles seemingly busting through the home's many windows. Other houses in the liberal-leaning city are decorated with less-than-flattering images of former President Donald Trump, while others are focused on more fantastical elements — like swooping dragons or Harry Potter.
When asked why so many have rallied behind the unusual idea instead of just waiting for next year's Mardi Gras, Boudreaux pointed to the difficult year.
"This holiday has meant so much to so many people for hundreds of years," she said. "This year especially we've lost so much and so many people. I think folks were desperate for something positive to direct their energies toward. They yearned for some connection and house floats gave them that."
"New Orleanians take Mardi Gras fun seriously," explained Chaya Conrad, owner of Bywater Bakery, where she makes some of the city's most celebrated king cakes — a Mardi Gras confection with a several-thousand year history.
"We all have our own role to play in Carnival," she said, "and I think this year we're creating new traditions for this unique moment that could be celebrated for years to come."
Some — like Devin De Wulf, founder of the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist initiative — are also working tirelessly to protect old traditions in danger because of the pandemic.
"Every Mardi Gras parade you watch is the work of countless float makers, artists, costume designers and musicians," De Wulf said. "We admire the parades, but we don't think about who's behind them. This year those people are out of work."
Through Hire a Mardi Gras Artist, he has raised more than $300,000 to pay 48 New Orleans artists to create 23 house floats.
Rene Pierre is a Mardi Gras artist, too. He would typically begin working on floats 10 months before the parades and that work is an essential part of his income. But this year, because of the uncertainty around COVID-19, work was scarce.
Because of initiatives like Hire a Mardi Gras Artist and Krewe of House Floats, though, Pierre said he has been commissioned to produce 64 house floats since December.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "Personally, it was my family's ticket out of a really tough financial situation. And as a city, it restored our morale in a big way."
That restoration of morale extends beyond those currently living in New Orleans. Laura Renae Steeg loves the region so much she named her daughter Magnolia after the Louisiana state flower.
"I get a daily reminder of this place I love," Steeg said.
Her husband's job moved the family to Maryland nearly a decade ago, but she has returned to New Orleans every year for Mardi Gras — except the year Magnolia was born.
Steeg had planned to skip the trip this year until tragedy struck. Her father unexpectedly passed away in January.
"It was a really dark time for me, and then I saw all of these house floats popping up in New Orleans," she said. "This has been a dark year for a lot of people, and it reminded me that beauty can emerge during terrible times, too. I needed to see it."
Steeg created a travel plan to limit the risk to herself and others and drove 1,800 kilometers from Maryland to Louisiana. She visited a drive-thru parade of some of Mardi Gras' most famous floats and someone threw beads into her car. The moment, the music and the people overwhelmed her and she broke down crying in her car.
"It just struck me that, like this city, we've all been through so much. It's been through hurricanes, pandemics and so much more — but it always perseveres just like it will this time. It just struck me that you can't beat spirit as strong as Mardi Gras. New Orleanians won't allow it."