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NPR Coronavirus Updates

In A Year Without Parades, Mardi Gras In New Orleans Is All About House Floats

NOEL KING, HOST:

It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and this year, because of COVID, things are different. The big parades are all canceled. Last year, you might remember hundreds of thousands of people came from all over the country during the early days of the pandemic, and that turned New Orleans into a hot spot, so they're trying to avoid this. Locals this year have found a way to celebrate safely and in style. Here's Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: When New Orleans canceled its Mardi Gras parades in November, Megan Boudreaux came up with a COVID-safe solution. She'd decorate her home to look like a parade float and wave to friends and neighbors from the safety of her front porch. Now, Mardi Gras day is here and the city is home to thousands of house floats.

MEGAN BOUDREAUX: As soon as I took it to Facebook to actually recruit some of my neighbors, it turned into the whole city. It turned into the whole country. It turned into, like, literally I have New Orleans expats participating internationally.

JUHASZ: There are no official parades. Instead, the houses have been mapped online, allowing locals to create their own route and drive by whenever they want. As crew captain, Boudreaux says her top priority is safety. So when travel writers started marketing the city's house floats to tourists, she pushed back hard.

BOUDREAUX: It would be irresponsible of us to say, yeah, please, come visit New Orleans. Like, there's a reason that when I started it, I said, you know, we're calling this the parade-at-home order - participate where you are, parade at home, even if home is in Ohio.

JUHASZ: Boudreaux's neighborhood, Algiers Point, has more than 140 decorated homes. Hers, dubbed the USS House Float, sports nautical flags, life preservers and an oversized ship wheel. From her front porch, you can hear wind chimes and a ferry blowing its horn as it makes its way across the Mississippi River. Crissy Whalin and her 12-year-old son Zephyr live around the corner. They've decorated their home, too. It's modeled after the board game Candyland, complete with inflatable gummy bears, homemade game pieces and ice cream balloons.

CRISSY WHALIN: When the kids roll by and they're like, oh, my God, it's Candyland, like, I just can imagine being, like, 2 feet tall and seeing it and thinking it's pretty cool

JUHASZ: And Zephyr says there's plenty of house floats for big kids. He has his own list of favorites.

ZEPHYR COOKE: There's a really good one where it's, like, all Mardi Gras and, like, kind of the "masquerade," quote-unquote, one. But it also has the Bernie Sanders meme in there and yeah, so it's really fun. There's a football one, a dinosaur one. So, yeah, there's a lot of really good massive ones.

JUHASZ: While most of the city's house floats are homemade, dozens have been professionally decorated. Between labor and supplies, a custom design can cost thousands of dollars. The new industry has created a lifeline for local artists like Coco Darrow. Darrow and her husband own a commercial art company. They normally create hand-painted props and backdrops for concert tours and movies. The pandemic eviscerated their business last year when they completed only a single paid project.

COCO DARROW: I actually thought that it might be a good way to make a little extra money to help cushion the cost of closing a business down. And then as time went on, we thought maybe we won't have to close.

JUHASZ: In two months, they've crafted more than two dozen house floats, and their team of two has grown to nine. Their designs are both whimsical and realistic. They've decorated many of the city's hospitals with 3D flowers and super-sized Mardi Gras beads.

DARROW: Styrofoam flowers, paper flowers - we just went with do one thing, do a lot of it.

JUHASZ: Devin De Wulf is founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, a Mardi Gras group that's been fundraising for locals throughout the pandemic. They've raised $300,000 for the house float movement, employing laid-off artists and transforming more than 20 homes and businesses. De Wulf says while the spirit of the season can be difficult to grasp, it's often found in the unexpected.

DEVIN DE WULF: You know, the magic of Mardi Gras is ephemeral and it comes and it goes. But in that moment when you're there, it's just pure bliss. It's pure joy.

JUHASZ: This year, house floats have brought that magic back. For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in New Orleans.

KING: And if you like, go to npr.org and you can see pictures of the house floats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.