NOLA mayor: Who knew Mardi Gras should have been canceled?

Louisiana is developing into a hot spot for the coronavirus pandemic, in particular, the city of New Orleans. As the Crescent City’s numbers grow and panic sets in, Mayor LaToya Cantrell finds herself under fire. Friday she was pushing back on accusations that she should have acted to cancel Mardi Gras.

John wrote about the mayor’s response to criticism and pointed out that at the time Mardi Gras kicked off, most cancellations of big events across the country had not begun. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and that includes elected officials in charge of cities across America.

I’m not going to beat up on Mayor Cantrell. It may surprise you but I think she did the best she could, given the information out there at the time. This year Mardi Gras was celebrated from Monday, January 6, through Tuesday, February 25. Remember it is a long celebration period, not just Fat Tuesday parades televised showing a sea of revelers clogging the French Quarter. It’s easy to now look back and realize inviting over a million guests to the party that day was a really bad idea.

Did Mardi Gras day – February 25 – land on the cusp of concern for the country in general? Yes. By February 25 articles were being written that the coronavirus may spread across the country and the precaution of social distancing was beginning to take hold. On that day, reported in the New York Times, medical experts were beginning to recommend the possibility of canceling conferences and events. Events may have to be canceled.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news briefing.

She said that cities and towns should plan for “social distancing measures,” like dividing school classes into smaller groups of students or closing schools altogether. Meetings and conferences may have to be canceled, she said. Businesses should arrange for employees to work from home.

So, no, Mardi Gras wasn’t canceled. A city like New Orleans that is dependent on tourist dollars only makes that kind of decision as a last resort. At that time, the risk of infection was only beginning to percolate with the general public. In comparison, the casinos in Las Vegas didn’t close down until midnight on March 17. Mayor Cantrell was interviewed Friday and responded to questions about her decision to go forward with Mardi Gras – she blames a lack of leadership at the federal level.

In an interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Cantrell pushed back against repeated questions about why she hadn’t canceled Carnival and whether she regretted it now.

She was adamant that federal officials raised “no red flags” suggesting the city should call off any of the Mardi Gras festivities, nor were there clear warnings from public health officials that the massive party could help set off a deadly outbreak in the city.

“Leaders on the ground, we rely on the facts to make decisions for the people that we serve,” Cantrell said. “Given no red flags, we moved forward. In hindsight, if we were given clear direction, we would not have had Mardi Gras, and I would have been the leader to cancel it.”

South by Southwest, an annual event in Austin, Texas which was expected to draw up to half a million visitors was canceled two weeks after Mardi Gras. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was canceled on March 11, for the first time in its 88 year history.

At first, I thought the mayor and local officials may be going the way of former Mayor Ray Nagin who badly botched the response to Hurricane Katrina and then turned around and blamed President George W. Bush and the federal government for his own failure of leadership. Nagin was given directions and advice as the hurricane developed by he acted slowly and arrogantly. We all know what happened. Now, however, the circumstances are different. There is so much uncertainty among the professionals that ordinary people are confused. I vacillate between a sense of helplessness and feeling the stress of trying to maintain a somewhat normal life while being confined to home. Here’s where I am – I finally found toilet paper Friday evening and I haven’t experienced that level of joy over such a normally mundane purchase in my life. It’s the little things that turn out to be not so little right now.

Think of the mixed messages we are still receiving from different quarters. I listened to Syra Madad today on NBC’s TODAY show. She is an expert in special pathogens and was featured in Netflix’s Pandemic. Madad stressed that the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Part of that is the fact that more testing is being done and part of that prediction is because COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus. People infected with it often don’t present symptoms for up to two weeks. And some people feel no symptoms at all.

Then I switched over to CNN and watched some of the Smerconish show. He interviewed Dr. Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford University School of Medicine. He sounded very much like Dr. Birx in trying to tamp down over-hyped, in his opinion, estimates of the destruction of the virus. Two experts, two different approaches. It’s confusing to those of us without medical degrees.

The spread of the pandemic through Louisiana makes me sad and also a bit on edge. Travelers to and from New Orleans circulated back across the country and abroad. We don’t know the full impact yet. I heard on the local news this morning that air travelers landing in my city of Houston from New Orleans and from the New York tri-state area are being asked to self-quarantine by Governor Abbott.

The mayor is complimentary of the Trump administration for making New Orleans one of the first cities to receive drive-through testing locations. City officials are pleased with the response of the federal government in general now, too. There will be plenty of time for lessons learned when this is all over. Right now is the time for everyone to pull together, stop trying to make political points, and let’s just get through it.