NEW ORLEANS - Mayor LaToya Cantrell is eyeing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for visitors flying into Louis Armstrong International Airport during the final two weeks of the 2022 Mardi Gras season, a step that could help keep the disease at bay should New Orleans move forward with a full celebration.
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, Cantrell said she is considering a host of health measures if parades roll during Carnival, including a requirement that visitors arriving by air be vaccinated against the disease or test negative for it before taking part in local festivities. The airport would be asked to ensure that passengers landing at Armstrong in the two weeks before Mardi Gras and those leaving shortly afterward are free of COVID-19.
Cantrell said she also could issue new post-Mardi Gras restrictions on local residents to contain spread, such as requirement that people avoid large crowds from Ash Wednesday until Easter.
"We have seen this at play over the past year in other cities and countries with these types of mandates," Cantrell said. "There are multiple models that we will look at to determine what is best suited for Mardi Gras."
Hundreds of thousands of people visit New Orleans almost every year for Carnival, filling hotels, restaurants and streets for parades, parties and other revelry. While many arrive through the airport, others drive in.
Cantrell first floated the idea of vaccine proof at the airport last week. It's not clear whether she could, or would, create a vaccine mandate for visitors, although with vaccine rules for bars, restaurants and other venues in place it's likely that a vaccine or negative test will be needed to participate in many aspects of Carnival either way.
That Cantrell is looking at potential vaccine mandates indicates she is serious about the prospect of letting parades roll next year. But the mayor, who is seeking a second term during municipal elections in next month, still wants to avoid the kind of COVID outbreak that occurred after Carnival 2020. Cantrell refused to issue parade permits for this year's Carnival during a period of broad community spread of the coronavirus.
After the most recent delta wave of the virus, new cases are now averaging about 35 per day in New Orleans, far below an early February peak of 127.
U.S. airlines currently do not require passengers to show proof of vaccination or a negative test before domestic travel, though they are required for passengers returning to the country from abroad. The mandate that Cantrell is considering would apply only to travelers arriving or leaving the airport in Kenner, and only for Carnival and a short period after Mardi Gras.
The mandate would add to the mask requirement that is currently in effect for all airlines. Airport spokesperson Erin Burns did not immediately comment about how Armstrong, governed by a board that the mayor appoints, might handle a vaccine requirement. The airport already offers Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on site to all passengers and employees seven days a week, according to its website.
Cantrell has already approved one parade permit this year, calling it a test case for next year's festivities. It's for the Krewe of Boo, a Halloween-themed event that will roll Oct. 23. Parade participants must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide a negative COVID-19 test. City health officials will also be in the crowd two hours before and two hours after that parade, sampling spectators' contact information to check on their health in the following weeks.
If they find high levels of the virus, Cantrell said, her administration might need to adjust rules for future parades. She said she is aiming for a test positivity rate below 5% and a low average daily number of coronavirus cases.
Beyond the parades, Carnival krewes that hold balls and other social gatherings next year must follow existing restrictions on large events. They include an indoor mask mandate and an outdoor mask mandate at gatherings of more than 500 people.
The Cantrell administration also requires people to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test before attending any indoor event, and to do the same before attending some large outdoor events. Bars and restaurants are required to check for vaccines or a negative test.
Cantrell does not have a set date for approving more parades, though those decisions "will have to come before the end of" 2021, she said.
Various krewe captains are meeting on Friday to finalize their numbers of parading members in 2022, she said. Once Cantrell has that information, she can decide whether to allow parades.
If she enacts the vaccine mandate at the airport, she said she's confident visitors and locals will adhere to that requirement and other public health restrictions.
"I think people will do the right thing, because they really want to have Mardi Gras," she said.
Mardi Gras 2022 falls on March 1.