Mask mandate lifted in New Orleans following Mardi Gras festivities
Just one day after Fat Tuesday, city officials announced at a Wednesday press conference that the indoor mask mandate would be lifted in New Orleans due to falling COVID-19 numbers.
Dr. Jennifer Avegno announced the eased restriction, pointing to the fact that Orleans Parish was at low risk of transmission, according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The mask mandate will be lifted at 6 a.m. Thursday.
She had hinted at easing safety measures a week ago, before New Orleans’ busiest week when millions of residents and visitors headed to Carnival season parades and festivities across the city.
The city’s vaccine mandate, which requires patrons of certain businesses to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test no older than 72 hours, could soon be lifted as well in late March, if cases remain low after Carnival.
Avegno stressed that these measures could be needed again, if future COVID variants emerge.
“We're not foolish enough to assume that it's not going to rear its ugly head and continue to find ways to challenge our community's health,” she said. “I just want everybody to be prepared for that.”
Masks will still be required on public transit and in healthcare settings. More information on the new guidance can be found here.
It is unclear how the new changes to the city’s COVID measures will affect public schools, where a mask and vaccine mandate are currently in place. The Orleans Parish School District set a Feb. 1 deadline for students to get vaccinated, but reporting delays and burdens on individual schools have slowed the process. School officials are expected to release more data in the coming days.
Avegno said it is up to the district to implement those changes.
The announcement of the loosened mask mandate comes just a day before a court hearing Thursday, in which Mayor LaToya Cantrell and school board president Olin Parker were subpoenaed by Attorney General Jeff Landry to testify in a legal challenge over the COVID-19 restrictions.
The lawsuit largely focuses on the city’s vaccine-or-test requirement for anyone entering Orleans Parish buildings, but also takes aim at the city mask mandate that will be lifted Thursday. The plaintiffs argue that the requirement is too vague to be enforced fairly and unlawfully enlists business owners as enforcers of a city policy.
Landry signed on to the suit last month. It was originally filed by more than 100 New Orleans area parents.
“I am hopeful this suit will finally bring an end to the City’s unlawful and draconian dictates upon all who rely on services in New Orleans,” Landry said in a statement Wednesday morning. “I am proud to stand with the parents and guardians fighting to ensure the government does not interfere with their families’ healthcare decisions.”
The city’s COVID rules have been the subject of harsh criticism from many of the state’s top Republican officials. Some Republican state lawmakers have floated withholding state money from New Orleans if city officials keep their mandates in place.
The GOP has argued that the rules have hindered economic activity in Orleans Parish, the centerpiece of the tourism industry upon which much of the state’s economy relies.
Avegno said the pending litigation and political pressure had nothing to do with the city’s decision to lift the mask mandate.
"We make decisions based on science and data and public health, not on legal proceedings," Avegno said.
The Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the city’s loosening of restrictions may affect the ongoing legal battle.
As of Tuesday, March 1, New Orleans is reporting an average of 26 new cases per day — down from 60 a week before Mardi Gras. Health officials reported no new COVID deaths on Tuesday, and seven new hospitalizations in Region 1, which includes Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
The city’s announcement follows new CDC guidance that emphasizes local decision-making, which informed New Orleans officials’ choice to keep the city’s mask mandate in place ahead of Carnival and to remove it as Lent begins, Avegno said.
It’s too soon to tell if Mardi Gras festivities — which brought thousands of residents and visitors alike into large crowds — will seed an outbreak.
In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, city officials ramped up COVID mitigation efforts in creative ways, throwing take-home tests at parades and setting up a testing site at the airport.
The city distributed over 30,000 tests during Carnival season. Avegno urged parade-goers to report their results via the QR code on the test package. Those results — along with test data from the coming weeks, and increased wastewater sampling, which helps catch the virus before an individual shows symptoms — will help the city track the virus’ prevalence.
Avegno still urged New Orleanians to mask up around individuals who remain at higher risk from COVID.
“Our elderly and immunocompromised friends and neighbors, as well as our youngest children, will still need our compassion and protection,” she said.