For the past three years, Chris Andrews would rent out a historic home in downtown Mobile where participants in his food tours would stop to watch a Mardi Gras parade while dining on King Cake and champagne.
This year, Bienville Bites food tour is offering a socially distanced murder mystery and scavenger hunt as well as a Carnival brunch tour. A “Party like a Mobilian” food box filled with MoonPies and other goodies, is offered for those staying away from Mobile during the Carnival season.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended Mobile’s Mardi Gras in a way unseen since World War II, canceling the traditional balls and parades in a city that claims the oldest Carnival celebration in the U.S. Some of the season’s most popular parades leading up to Fat Tuesday – this year, on February 16 – can draw hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown streets.
But downtown business owners are hoping to keep the good times rolling with an alternative spin on an approximately three-week season that traditionally provides its biggest sales bump.
“The parades are canceled, but it’s still a season,” said Chris Andrews, who founded the food tours in 2017. “There is still this spirit of Mardi Gras going on. It’s a just a different feel this year. You can definitely tell that it’s a different vibe already, even though there are no scheduled parades taking place.”
Indeed, the city’s historic Mardi Gras festivity is altered like never before as the traditional two-plus weeks of parades are canceled and the costumed balls – most of which occur in downtown Mobile – are canceled. While more organic celebrations, such as Yardi Gras, are popping up in the city’s neighborhoods like the Oakleigh Garden Historic District, the downtown streets are quiet. The first of the Mardi Gras parades in Mobile were expected to kick off on Friday with the Conde Cavaliers, who have hosted Carnival’s lead-off parade since 1977.
“It’s sort of a like a big hole in our heart right now,” said David Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile. “Mardi Gras is our soul. It’s in our DNA.”
‘HURT A LOT OF PEOPLE’
The hole is also being felt in the pocketbook for downtown businesses, where Mardi Gras lures in the tourists and locals alike to restaurants and bars.
Said Wes Lambert, owner of Dumbwaiter Restaurant, “It’s going to hurt a lot of people down here, us included.”
The coronavirus pandemic represents the first global event to halt Mobile’s Mardi Gras parades since 1942-1945 during World War II. Orleans Parish in Louisiana canceled all its Mardi Gras parades during a police strike in 1979, but Mobile’s parades have continued unimpeded for 73 years — until now.
“The past 10 months have been incredibly difficult on businesses throughout our community, and the restaurants, shops and bars in downtown Mobile are no exception,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “We have focused on threading the needle between protecting the health of our citizens and keeping businesses open and our citizens employed. I know losing the Mardi Gras boost is adding to the pressure of these business owners are feeling.”
Even the alternative Mardi Gras celebrations are likely to take place away from the downtown business. Some business owners anticipate the parties flowing into the nearby neighborhoods where so-called “Poarch Parades” and “Yardi Gras” is occurring. In New Orleans, where the parades are also canceled, thousands of decorated homes are called “float houses,” and Mobile is following suit.
“I am sure (the alternative activities) will help a little, but Yardi Gras is driving this thing,” said John Serda, owner of brewery and a coffee shop along or near the parade routes in downtown Mobile. “That doesn’t help my business which is from people on the ground and walking downtown. And if they are in their cars and driving around, that won’t help.”
Serda Brewing Co. is hosting a Mardi Gras-themed puppy parade on Sunday to benefit an animal rescue foundation. There will be a costume contest and a second line band that will kickstart a parade around the brewery, according to owner John Serda.
“I used Mardi Gras to pay for big capital expenditures that I incur over the year,” said Serda. “Of course, some years are better than others. Last year was the best year we ever had. I think the year we had before that was the worst in terms of sales. But even a bad night during Mardi Gras is better than any day during a typical week.”
David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar and Grille and the Royal Scam, said the lack of parades and balls also means a loss in revenues. He said that during the coronavirus pandemic, his downtown sports bar is probably “doing maybe 75 percent of the business we would typically do.” The Royal Scam, which sits on a parade route, is closed.
“The name of the game for our organization and for all these restaurants, I think, is to be very efficient at what you’re doing in labor management and inventory management,” said Rasp. “During Mardi Gras, you’re ordering in beer and food and gearing for these huge increases that take place during that three-week window. This is also that one time of the year when we’re staffed up a little bit. But we have not done that this year.”
He added, “We are planning for the next three to four weeks to resemble the previous three to four weeks.”
Some of the bars are planning to host Mardi Gras-themed events and are banking on revelers to check things out.
Gina Jo Previto, manager of the family-owned nightclub Veets, said they are planning costumed events and will host live music. Veets is located on Royal Street, next to the Royal Scam, and along a Mardi Gras parade route.
“I want to patent this as the ‘little Mardi Gras that could,’” said Previto. “We need it. We still have live music, and the city is letting us do seating outside. It’s helped a lot.”
She added, “We are celebrating every night like it’s a parade night. You just don’t have to fight the barricades. I’m thinking positive. It will make us appreciate the Mardi Gras to come.”
Veets is part of the Bardi Gras event involving the city’s downtown clubs. She said that some bars will honor the mystic societies that sponsor the parades during Mardi Gras season. For instance, Previto said there will be nights dedicated to groups like the Conde Cavaliers, Mobile Mystics, the Mystic Stripers Society, etc.
“We are honoring those organizations because they don’t get to parade,” said Previto. “I have that feeling that organizations will take to the streets of downtown.”
Carol Hunters, spokeswoman with the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said she believes the downtown restaurants and bars will get in on some of the Mardi Gras action this year. She noted that some establishments are decorating more than they have in previous years. Moe’s Original BBQ, for instance, is doing a 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea theme for its business, and a large piece of Mardi Gras float art is displayed near its front entrance.
Hunter said her agency is encouraging people to go on a socially distance walking tour of downtown.
“I think people will come,” said Hunter. “People seem eager to celebrate the Mardi Gras tradition in whatever form it takes. I think they will come downtown, and they will go to the neighborhoods and, again, it will be a Mardi Gras unlike we’ve had in recent times. But at least there will be something.”
Previto said the bar celebrations can be safe, and she is encouraging people to support local hotels that typically fill up during prime Mardi Gras weekends.
“There’s going to be good deals for everyone,” she said. “We’ll be open on Joe Cain Day and Fat Tuesday like always. It might not be as big.”
Health officials, though, are concerned that Mardi Gras and its festive appeal could be a virus spreader even without the parades and balls.
Though the number of virus cases are declining, COVID-19 remains a serious concern in Mobile County which ranks third in the state for the number of cases since the pandemic began, and the is the second deadliest in Alabama only behind Jefferson County.
“I continue to think that bars and balls and indoor gatherings will be the highest risks,” said Ellen Eaton, assistant professor of medicine at UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
Eaton said she was glad that indoor Mardi Gras activities were canceled this year, though she noted that bars remain “high-risk activity.”
“We know people will take off their masks and will continue to see lapses in mask uses and there are super spreader events be it a baby shower and small dinner parties,” said Eaton.
Attendance at any Mardi Gras function, even without the parades, is dependent on the weather. Eaton said she’s hopeful that nice weather will allow people in sizes of “five or fewer” to gather outdoors at a safe distance to celebrate the season.
“I don’t think they should sit across each other and share a meal,” said Eaton. “But being able to space out and being outside with a group that is small and in an intimate gathering is a safe way to celebrate Mardi Gras. We’ve seen people creating outdoor spaces in their front yards where previously they did not have tables and chairs. If I was there, that is what I would be doing in having intimate events with one other family and outdoors.”
Rasp, at Heroes, said the strict social distancing requirements inside his sports bar limits the number of revelers who typically stop into his establishment during Carnival.
“We can’t fill up our restaurants at this time, and we can’t have a three-deep (line) at the bar,” said Rasp. “I am certainly hopeful we will see some activity, but it would be fraction of what we normally would see at this time of the year.”
He added, “If the weather is appealing, that can help us. If some folks are ready to get out because it’s still Mardi Gras to them and they have the vacation time and want to enjoy the season even without the structured balls and parades, then so be it. We’d love to serve it.”