New Orleans Ending Mask Mandate; Vaccine Mandate Ending Soon

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is lifting its indoor mask mandate now that the annual Carnival season, which draws large crowds to city streets and packs bars and restaurants, is over, the city health director said Wednesday.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno said the mask mandate ends Thursday at 6 a.m. She added that another COVID-19 mitigation measure — a requirement that customers show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for entry into bars, restaurants or other venues — will end March 21, if hospitalization rates remain stable.

“The greatest benefit of masking to our community has been during these past few weeks of repeated large crowded activities, particularly indoors,” Avegno said. “And the threat from those events has now significantly lessened as we enter into Lent and leave Carnival behind.”

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Avegno added that the city strongly supports individuals’ decisions to continue masking and the rights of businesses to continue masking requirements. She said health officials will closely monitor data in the coming weeks and expect the number of infections will rise, given the influx of Carnival crowds. How those infections affect hospitalization rates will be key to deciding whether to go through with the lifting of proof-of-vaccination requirements, she said.

New infections are falling locally and nationally after a surge attributed to the omicron variant. Louisiana hospital numbers have fallen sharply. In New Orleans, more than 96% of the city’s adult population is at least partially vaccinated and nearly 85% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the city’s figures.

New Orleans began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test in August. The city’s latest mask mandate was imposed in January as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were surging in Louisiana.

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Carnival season ended on Tuesday — Mardi Gras — with throngs of revelers, many in costume, walking the French Quarter and historic St. Charles Avenue and eating and drinking at local businesses.

With vaccines now available, as well as new treatments that have helped keep deaths form the disease down, the city felt it was important to allow Carnival activities — traditions cherished by locals and vital to the local hospitality industry — to go on.

Last year, parades were canceled and entry by visitors into the French Quarter was restricted as officials worked to avoid a repeat of Mardi Gras 2020. That celebration was belatedly seen as a superspreader event that contributed to New Orleans being an early Southern hot spot for COVID-19.

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“We knew that a repeat of the suffering of Mardi Gras 2020 was not an option,” Avegno said.

Avegno said the decision to lift the mitigation measures was not influenced by a pending lawsuit filed by opponents of the measures.

“We make decisions based on science and data and public health, not on legal proceedings,” Avegno said.

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