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Carnival in the Covid era

Mardi Gras may be different in 2021, but expect the good times to still roll

Fun in defiance of disaster is one of the Coast’s defining traits. 

So, it’s no surprise that with a pandemic throwing Mardi Gras plans into flux, groups like the Krewe of Gemini are taking the situation in stride — showing the stoicism of a community that has weathered its share of catastrophe and come back stronger. 

“We are proceeding and moving forward,” says Gemini’s ball captain Shellie Moses, “but we will face whatever challenges we are dealt with in 2021 with an adult beverage in one hand and a blinged-out mask on our face.” 

With its Gulfport parades approved and logistics progressing for a ball on Jan. 30, The Krewe of Gemini considers its plans “secure” — but some groups have made the difficult decision to cancel their 2021 activities. Several others are watching and waiting or have chosen to scale back their celebrations. 

For instance, The Ocean Springs Carnival Association will be limiting the number of tickets sold to its “Arabian Nights – A Whole New World” ball on Jan. 29 to comply with the half-capacity restriction at the Ocean Springs Civic Center. 

“We wanted to play on the fact that this year has been a whole new world for all of us,” says OSCA board member Eva Pund, “and since our ball has always been a ‘mask-required’ ball, we thought it would be fun incorporating the mask mandate into the theme with a little twist.” 

The Gulf Coast Carnival Association, the Coast’s oldest Mardi Gras group, has been rolling through the streets of Biloxi since 1908 — but the pandemic has forced some changes to its festivities. Planning for Mardi Gras takes a full year, says GCCA Board Chairman Kenny Holloway, and 2020 preparations have been difficult while state and local attendance limits remained in question. 

Mardi Gras is, after all, a “huge social gathering,” Holloway adds, which is problematic in the COVID-19 era — especially when the group’s annual parade typically is attended by 80,000- plus revelers. 

The GCCA has chosen to defer the presentation of its incoming royal court to 2022. However, plans for the annual 5K run, a virtual silent auction, a Mardi Gras ball on Feb. 13, a parade and the possibile addition of a golf tournament are advancing. 

“GCCA is proceeding with Mardi Gras 2021, but in a different fashion,” Holloway and Jeff Elder, captain of carnival, explained in a letter to sponsors. “We are going to do everything within our ability to continue to let the show go on and are modifying events as necessary.” 

Similarly, The Revelers have set their 71st Annual Carnival Ball for Feb. 13, but according to treasurer John Heath, it only will happen if the city of Biloxi allows full capacity at the Biloxi Civic Center — which is over 1,000 attendees. 

“If they continue to limit the attendance to 500, the ball will be postponed until 2022,” he says. “We have 345 members, and with spouses and guests, we need the full capacity to accommodate all participants.” 

Citing a “need to put the health and wellbeing of our participants, guests, families and club members first and foremost, ahead of everything else,” The Southernettes are among the groups that postponed their annual ball until 2022. Others include Les Cavaliers, Le Belle Femme and Order of Billikins. 

The Southernettes’ decision to cancel was met with nothing but praise, according to president Valerie Moore. 

“This was not easy for us, as we have been ‘rolling’ for over 50 years,” Moore says, “but we cannot control this pandemic, and our court and participants were totally supportive and appreciative. We have an excellent group of members and participants who love this organization and truly support our success.” 

While the situation is unique, according to Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum Executive Director Anna Harris, it’s not entirely without precedent. The Gulf Coast Carnival Association suspended parades during World War I and II and the Korean War. Two of the area’s oldest krewes, Les Masquees (established 1922) and Mithras (established 1923) paused balls during World War II, and most krewes did not hold balls in the years following hurricanes Camille and Katrina. 

The heart of Mardi Gras is merriment and revelry with friends and family, so Harris suggests keeping the spirit alive by sharing a king cake and a toast with friends. 

“Like the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mardi Gras always comes back bigger and better than before,” Harris says. “Mardi Gras 2022 is guaranteed to be a memorable season!” 

Moore agrees and emphasizes that no matter what, the good times will always roll on the Coast. 

“Will Mardi Gras feel the same without all the events and parades? No,” she acknowledges. “But we are confident in our Gulf Coast residents that it will be evident one way or another through decorations, Zoom parties or even neighborhood outdoor events throughout the Lenten season! It’s just how we ‘roll!’”

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