Mardi Gras Madness: The mayor said come to New Orleans, then the parades were canceled

There are no Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans this year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Now the mayor is closing down bars because people are not following the restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of the virus in the city.

For the first time since 1979, there are no parades rolling through the streets and no stories of craziness from the parade-goers this year. In 1979, the reason was a new mayor and a police department that didn’t want to be led by his newly appointed police chief. A police strike was involved and the krewe captains canceled the parades themselves rather than be used as a pawn in the strike negotiations. It was a political battle. Now it’s a health issue.

Up until now, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other city officials have welcomed tourists and encouraged visitors to the city. The welcome came with a request to respect the restrictions in place due to the plague. However, there is criticism that city hall has done little to enforce the restrictions. With Mardi Gras rapidly approaching – next Tuesday, February 16 – the mayor is cracking down. On Saturday she issued new restrictions to remain in place for five days, from Feb. 12 through Fat Tuesday, besides the other Phase 2 restrictions already in place.

On Saturday the mayor announced that the city shut down four bars that were violating coronavirus restrictions. Calls were made to city hall, alerting officials to the bad behavior. This came one day after her administration will ban all bar services and limit access to popular streets in the final days of Carnival beginning late this week. The big day is coming and they have to get serious about public safety.

“Yesterday, we spoke directly to those bars [that] continue to break every guideline put in place by this administration to protect our residents,” said Peter Bowen, the deputy chief administrative officer who oversees code enforcement, safety and permits, “We said we knew who you were, what you were doing and how you were trying to hide what you were doing, and what we were going to do if you continued.

“This is what we mean, and we’re not done yet.”

Fines were not immediately levied, a City Hall spokesperson said, but the bars might be subject to fines, suspension or revocation of their alcohol beverage outlet permits – or imprisonment of their owners.

In some cases, Cantrell said, inspectors found the bars locked to outsiders but patrons inside, unmasked and being served past the mandatory 11 p.m. closing time. She distributed photographs of a large gathering inside The Red Eye and a barricade being used to prop open an entry door.

One bar owner said what we often hear from bar owners in other cities – if the choice is between bending the rules and trying to stay in business or not doing so, rules will likely be bent. New Orleans is a tourist town and Mardi Gras is a huge moneymaker for its businesses.

“Everybody is doing what they have to do to survive,” said Bowes, 37. “If it comes down to you losing your business or breaking the rules a little bit, what do you think they’re going to do?”

Bowes said his business will abide by the compliance plan he submitted to City Hall. But he’s not sure how much longer the industry can stand to operate at a reduced capacity, particularly after losing the final five days of Carnival – a period when Redeye usually pulls in more than a month of business.

One reason the mayor and city hall feel additional pressure to keep the public safe right now is the announcement from the Louisiana Department of Health that it confirmed additional cases of a coronavirus variant, one that is 50% more infectious than the original virus. It is predicted that the variant will cause a surge in infections before widespread vaccinations can take effect. Health officials are trying to get out in front of the next surge in cases.

The message to tourists is moderated now. Instead of concentrating on marketing the city as safe for tourists, now visitors are being told to stay home if they aren’t prepared to play by the rules. This Mardi Gras is not like the others.

Councilmember Jay H. Banks came the closest to fully warning tourists to stay away on Friday.

“If by chance you have an aversion to wearing a mask, stay where y’at. If you’ve got a problem with social distancing, don’t come. If your expectation is to come to the city that care forgot and forget we care about our residents, you are going to be sorely disappointed,” Banks said. “I would suggest that if your expectation is the Mardi Gras of the past, don’t waste your money.”

So, for the five day period from February 12 to February 16, additional restrictions will be in effect:

All bars must close, including those operating as restaurants

Go-cup liquor sales are forbidden

Entertainment destinations such as Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street and Decatur Street will be closed to pedestrians as well as vehicles from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.

The Claiborne Avenue corridor beneath Interstate 10 will be fenced from access.

Mardi Gras was canceled in 1979. In 1980, in a strong response to that action, carnival season in New Orleans was bigger and better. Let’s hope that’s the case in 2022. Laissez les bons temps rouler.