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Gulf coast Mardi Gras in a COVID-19 world

APR's Guy Busby
Mardi Gras parade in Mobile

It looks like COVID-19 could change how the Gulf coast celebrates Mardi Gras. Many carnival organizations have called off parades for 2021. Others still hope that they might be able to carry on. Let’s look at how some communities and parading societies are reacting to the effect of the coronavirus on the 300-year-old Gulf Coast tradition.

Carnival festivities are a serious matter on the Gulf Coast. In the last 150 years, two world wars were the only things to cancel Mardi Gras. Generations have grown up watching the magic of parades rolling through the night. But now, many parades scheduled for 2021 are already called off. The reason is concern over COVID-19. Some other groups are still waiting to see what the upcoming weeks bring. Organizing a parade and other Mardi Gras events is a year-round process involving hundreds of people. One mystic society member said it wasn’t an easy decision to call it off.

“Just super disappointed that we can’t put on the show that we like to put on for everybody. It’s such a happy event from ages 3 to 93,” said someone we’ll be hearing a lot from in this story.

Credit APR's Guy Busby
A KOER float during a Mardi Gras

You may have noticed this interview was a no name affair. By tradition, mystic society members don’t say who they are. Suffice it say, this member is an officer in the Knights of Ecor Rouge. The knights have paraded in Fairhope for more than 30 years, but this year, they decided it wasn’t safe to continue.

“Basically, our perspective is we looked at it two-fold,” he said. “One, and these aren’t in any particular order, but one, the safety of our members as a whole. We have a lot of members, hundreds of members, Also, the safety of residents of the county, anyone that may be, that may attend our parade anyone also that may come to Fairhope that weekend because of our parade event. We just felt like it was the right thing to do overall for the health and safety of all of those people involved. Certainly very disappointed but again, nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of everybody involved.”

The Knights had most of their parade preparations done when they decided to cancel. Now, like other Mardi Gras organizations, they’ll have to decide what to save for next year, but plans are already starting for a celebration in 2022.

Credit APR's Guy Busby
Mobile's Olympia Brass Band during Mardi Gras

“We’re not sure on that," said our KOER representative. “That remains to be seen, but we were prepared to roll. We’re not sure if it’ll transfer to next year or not, but hopefully, we plan to have something very exciting for 2022 Mardi Gras and we look forward to that. We’re certainly disappointed and by no means will this. Our membership is still very united, very strong and united We’re certainly planning for the next Mardi Gras season and all the events we do leading up to that. We’re looking forward to bigger and better things. We’re thankful, I guess, that we have been able to make it through this year with a very strong membership, united membership and we are, again, very thankful for that and we thank our members for that.”

Mardi Gras isn’t just a celebration for float riders or the crowds. KOER parades typically attract crowds of up to 70,000. The Fat Tuesday season affects the whole community.

“As people listening will find out, it’s a huge financial windfall for the city and all these businesses and we just hate that that’s not going to happen. We realize the effect that the parade has and we love that,” said the member of KOER. “We want that for the area and not just us. There’s other parades, of course, the next weekend, but it just seems like our weekend really seems to get things kicked off with a big wave of tourism.”

Credit APR's Guy Busby
Fairhope float during Mardi Gras

The Knights are one of four parades that have canceled in Fairhope. Governor Kay Ivey extended her safer at home order, including face masks and social distancing. That had Mardi Gras group thinking about cancelling. Fairhope Mayor Sherry Sullivan said residents as well as mystic societies feel this is the best decision.

“I think everybody kind of expected it. With the mandate coming for us as a city, it’s very hard with the mandate,” said Mayor Sullivan. “We don’t actually have a facility where they can hold a ball, because if you have a gathering and you’re not family then you have to social distance and, of course, the Civic Center’s square footage wouldn’t allow us to have balls there anyway. Everybody’s been pretty understanding, disappointed, but understanding. It’s hard to make sure you’re doing the right thing and hard to, and again, there are people who are so extreme right or extreme left that you really worry about. You’re not going to please everybody."

In neighboring Daphne, two mystic societies canceled their parades. But one, the Shadow Barons, is still scheduled. Mayor Robin LeJeune said the city will wait for the new year to make a final decision on Mardi Gras.

“We haven’t made that decision. We’re just trying to get through the holidays and this spike right here. We’re not making any rash decisions, jump to any conclusions. We’re really excited about the vaccines that are coming out and excited to see how that helps. With the holidays, we’ve got time and actually the City Council can pull the permit if they so choose, so we’re not, like I said, we’re just going to see what happens and how things go come the first of the year,” LeJeune said.

Credit APR's Guy Busby
Alligator float during Daphne's Mardi Gras celebration

“With the information and see how the vaccines doing and how people are reacting and kind of go from there and not making any kind of rash decisions now, but I’m sure we’ll make decisions as we get closer to the season,” she said.

Parades in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are still on. Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon says residents hope conditions will improve, but they’ll have to decide between risk to the public health and economy.

“At this point, we are intending on having our parades. We hope that the numbers will be such that there will be no reason to run from it,” Kennon said. “I do think you have to balance constantly, the effects of economic consequences of shutting down or not having events versus the health of your community and we know the virus is real. We know that is has a constituency of its own and there’s a portion of our population that’s highly susceptible to significance consequences It’s a constant balancing act between the economic consequences of shutting down businesses versus the dire consequences that a certain segment of our population suffers if they get the virus and it’s really hard to find that middle ground. Right now, our goal is to go forward with everything that we possibly can until such time that there is a reason not to. After the first of the year, we’ll evaluate, and you never say never. So, I want to think that we’re open-minded and smart enough to make a decision that’s in the best interests of the greatest number of people and truly empathize with those that might be hurt by our decisions so that’s the way we try to look at it.”

Another factor is that during the Mardi Gras season, the beach population swells with retirees coming south for the winter. Mayor Kennon says those older visitors, known as snowbirds, are another factor to consider.

“It’s a dead part of the year and we’re probably going to have a slow snowbird season so we need to get on with life,” Kennon said. “I think the snowbirds are very cautious and I think there are a lot of them in a wait and see attitude and I understand that completely. Again, we know the virus is real and we know it’s very dangerous for a certain segment of our population, especially the elderly and we’re very sensitive to that. Both sides have to be considered in the process of trying to do what’s best for everybody.”

Mardi Gras isn’t just a matter of economics or preparations. For people who grew up or spent much of their lives on the Gulf Coast, the celebration is part of their history, society and soul. Again, our secret member of the Knights of Ecor Rouge.

“It’s hard to explain about Mardi Gras to people who have never done it. My favorite thing about Mardi Gras, one of them, is, since I’ve grown up here and everything is having people come from out of town who have never been to Mardi Gras and you kind of tell them a little bit about what it’s going to be like and then you talk to them the next morning, Sunday morning, and say ‘well, what did you think?’ and it’s like ‘uhh wow!’ They don’t even know where to start,” he said.

Revelers say, however, that whatever happens, the good times will roll again.

“It’s very disappointing. Obviously no one’s fault. That’s for sure. It’s just what we’re dealing with and we will get through it,” said the representative of KOER.

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