Stop Shaming New Orleans for Holding Mardi Gras

No one on the street on Mardi Gras Day realized they were in danger.

The Skull and Bones Gang, dressed in skeleton costumes, walk down a street.
The traditional Skull and Bone Gang wake up residents of the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans on Mardi Gras morning. Emily Kask/Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

As Louisiana suffers one of the worst outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., Mardi Gras, a convergence of locals and visitors in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, sharing drinks and hugs, is taking the blame.

Carnival is a season of events beginning on Jan. 6 and building to a crescendo on Fat Tuesday, which fell on Feb. 25 this year. While the media often focuses on the free-for-all on Bourbon Street, for most New Orleanians it’s a holiday made up of rituals, recurrences of sounds, and sights shared with loved ones in particular places. This year, as always, Mardi Gras Indians converged on the Sportsman’s Corner bar at Second and Dryades in Central City. These “tribes” are groups of African Americans who march through the streets in spectacular handmade “suits” that pay homage to indigenous people who joined black Louisianans in resisting slavery. Theresa Elloie and her family have hosted the Mardi Gras Indians at Sportsman’s Corner for generations.

Across town in Tremé, Ronald Lewis was in his usual skeleton costume as gatekeeper of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang. Like the Black Masking Indians, this tradition in New Orleans goes back to the 19th century. The skeletons serve as walking memento mori, chastening those of us fixated on earthly desires—some carry bloody cow bones meant to jar people out of complacency. No one on the street on Mardi Gras Day realized they were already facing an immediate threat. At the time, there were only a couple dozen confirmed COVID-19 cases in America, and no known community spread. The coronavirus was evident only in a few group costumes in the French Quarter, where people dressed up like bottles or cans of Corona beer. Carnival—Latin for “farewell to flesh”—has always been an occasion to whistle past the graveyard.

Three weeks later, on March 18, Lewis was hospitalized and tested for COVID-19. He died on the 20th at age 68, and a few days later, the New Orleans Advocate reported, the test came back positive. Theresa Elloie had been in the hospital for a week by then with what turned out to be COVID-19. She died on the 23rd at age 63.

The first COVID-19 case in Louisiana was reported on March 9. By March 26 there were 2,305, resulting in 83 deaths. New Orleans now has one of the highest per capita infection rates and COVID-19 death rates in the country. New cases are growing exponentially. As the city faces shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment in hospitals, Mayor LaToya Cantrell went on CNN last Thursday to rally support for the city. Oddly, Wolf Blitzer spent most of the segment asking her about Mardi Gras—if anyone had advised her to cancel it or if, in hindsight, she wished she had. Cantrell pointed out that federal authorities consulting with the city ahead of its public events hadn’t raised any red flags. Her response was criticized on social media, with Lawfare executive editor Susan Hennessey tweeting, “at some point local leadership needs to take responsibility.” Criticism in the media hasn’t let up since. On Thursday on The View, Meghan McCain told Cantrell she was “surprised the Mardi Gras celebrations continued” in February.

The spectacle of the mayor being made to answer for New Orleans’ perceived irresponsibility was one of many echoes of Hurricane Katrina in the current disaster. Fifteen years ago, local officials begged for federal assistance while the world watched New Orleanians wave towels at helicopters from rooftops. The response came slowly and, it seemed, begrudgingly. In the aftermath, some pundits asked why the people gathered outside the Convention Center, most of them black, had depended on the federal government to come to their rescue in the first place. Surely they brought their fate upon themselves by refusing to leave the city before the storm? The answer—that many lacked the resources to follow evacuation orders—didn’t stop speculation that New Orleanians were somehow complicit in their fate. (A later analysis would show much of the responsibility lay with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose levee system failed in dozens of places, inundating 80 percent of the city.)

On Sunday, as Louisiana waited to receive any of the 5,000 ventilators requested from the national stockpile, Gov. John Bel Edwards took his case to Face the Nation on CBS. Margaret Brennan took the opportunity to bring up Mardi Gras: “You didn’t cancel it. Do you regret not doing so?” She went on to ask if Edwards had been waiting “for the federal government to tell you as a state what to do.” The governor noted that no one at any level of government was canceling events at the time—that didn’t start until mid-March. During Carnival in February, crowds across the country packed NBA stadiums and political rallies, amusement parks and concerts. Why were leaders from New Orleans and Louisiana being asked to substantiate behavior that went unremarked on everywhere else?

Maybe Mardi Gras is just an easy target. It has an air of transgression, and can be written off as an indulgence. There was a national debate about canceling Carnival six months after Hurricane Katrina too, when swaths of the city still lacked basics like electricity and running water. Some felt, not unreasonably, that resources shouldn’t be diverted for nonessentials. Mardi Gras parades had been canceled before, during wars and once for a police strike. After Katrina, the city decided that the chance to demonstrate its viability to the rest of the country was worth the expense. For people like me, home after months in exile, unsure what of our old lives would be recoverable, it was a way to process trauma.

On Mardi Gras morning that year I walked to the Sportsman’s Corner past a lot of empty houses in Central City, a predominantly black neighborhood whose residents had been displaced after the flood. I hoped some Mardi Gras Indians had managed to make it back, and sure enough, I found the Golden Comanches passing by Dryades Street. They were decked out in plumes of purple and yellow and red, paced by a bass drum and a tambourine. One member wore an apron he’d beaded depicting a dove flying over a flood with an olive branch in its mouth. In the ensuing years a wave of gentrification changed the face of Central City, but Theresa Elloie and her son Steven were constants, making sure the Mardi Gras Indian tradition had a home at the Sportsman’s Corner.

I met Ronald Lewis just before that Mardi Gras in 2006. He was rebuilding his house in the Lower Ninth Ward, and the museum behind it, the House of Dance & Feathers, which was devoted to New Orleans’ parading traditions. I started looking for him in the North Side Skull and Bone Gang the following year. They came out before dawn, with white bones painted onto black clothes, making noise in the street, a literal and figurative wake-up call. They had a refrain, a warning for people who might be living recklessly: “You’re next.” Though a battle with diabetes limited his mobility this year, Lewis was still out in full regalia, wearing face paint that turned his head into a stylized skull.

As was the case when the levees broke, the people responsible for so much of New Orleans’ distinctive culture—largely black and low-income—are again among the most vulnerable to this new disaster. In normal times, the city would be celebrating the lives of Lewis and Elloie on the street with brass band–led funeral processions. Now, with gatherings of more than 10 prohibited in New Orleans, those rituals are on hold. Hearing of their passing and staying inside goes against a basic instinct, but we know now what’s at risk.

While there are legitimate questions to pose to local leadership in this crisis, when it comes to Mardi Gras, Cantrell and Edwards acted in good faith with the information they had. The state didn’t record its first case of the coronavirus until 13 days after Carnival ended, and the next day Cantrell canceled all public events in New Orleans. The day after that, Edwards declared a public health emergency. Two days later, they rolled out a raft of protective measures including the closure of schools statewide, and they’ve since maintained a stay-at-home order. The failure here is at the federal level, where inaction in the face of nationwide shortages of ventilators and PPE has left states to fend for themselves, pleading for resources on television. At Tuesday’s press conference, President Donald Trump said, “We’ve done a great job with ventilators” in Louisiana, but the state has received only 192 of the 12,000 it needs. Hospitals here are expected to reach their ventilator capacity on Saturday. That Mardi Gras helped fuel the outbreak isn’t the scandal here. It’s part of the tragedy.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.