In early February there was no doubt in City Councilman Glenn Lazard’s mind that he’d be getting a letter supporting his push for a local mask mandate from a diverse group of local physicians. That’s not what happened, however, and the day after his ordinance was shot down in a 3-2 vote Lazard is left to wonder why.
Within days of going public with his intention of crafting a local ordinance to marshal some local enforcement of the state’s mask mandate, Lazard’s push began to unravel against rising pressure. The day of the vote itself, he lost official support from a group of physicians affiliated with both of Lafayette’s hospital systems. Instead of a full-throated letter endorsing the ordinance itself, a draft of which circulated among the medical community more than a week before the vote, the doctors issued a diluted statement backing masks in general terms.
“We, the undersigned physicians of Lafayette Parish(,) support a local mask mandate,” the Feb. 1 version read, according to a draft reviewed by The Current. “A statewide mask mandate is in place, and other communities in our state have passed their own mask mandate, reinforcing the need for public health measures to protect our citizens. We believe that the City and Parish of Lafayette in passing a mask mandate, will strongly reinforce the message to the community that masking remains important.”
Wording from that early draft, penned by Our Lady of Lourdes’ interim Chief Medical Officer Henry Kaufman, was removed from the statement ultimately delivered to Lazard just hours before the vote.
Around the time Lazard began rallying support from the medical community in late January, his then-co-sponsor, Councilwoman Nanette Cook, was reaching out to Kaufman for his endorsement, according to Lazard. Lazard himself also called the hospital’s top spokeswoman, Elisabeth Arnold, who assured him help was on its way, with the caveat that Kaufman wanted to see the ordinance before officially backing it.
“What she told me was that Dr. Kaufman was in support of the ordinance and that a letter had been prepared and they were awaiting signatures on it from a variety of different physicians,” says Lazard. “That’s verified by the statement he gave in his interview [to The Daily Advertiser],” Lazard says. “The preponderance of evidence supports that mask mandates work,” Kaufman told the daily paper Feb. 2. “And if that helps to keep our community safe and our businesses up and running and our economy vibrant, and it helps us get back to normal sooner rather than later, then I support it, and I would advocate that everybody else support it too.”
”It was just a question of how many [would sign the letter],” Lazard recalls.
In the meantime, letters of support were coming in from other physicians and being posted to social media (read two of them here and here); Ochsner Lafayette General Chief Medical Officer Amanda Logue advocated for mask mandates in a statement to KATC: “Face masks and other social distancing measures play a vital role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our community. We continue to support mask mandates — wearing a mask in public is a simple, but powerful way to protect both yourself and those around you.”
Support, however, quickly began to crumble. The proposed ordinance was attacked by conservative groups like Citizens for a New Louisiana and other known right-wing activists (check the comments, too); misinformation about the efficacy of masks quickly took off on social media, and the ordinance issue itself became a political hot potato — derided as an attack on individual freedom, rather than a genuine effort mitigate the spread of a deadly virus.
While by and large local physicians have consistently reinforced the message that wearing masks is an essential part of stymying the disease, others in the orbit of local decision makers have sowed doubt. Cook’s decision to withdraw her support of the local mandate was influenced by a small element of the local medical community, in particular Dr. Andy Blalock, a local nephrologist Cook identified in a message to one of her constituents. “I’m getting mixed messages from the medical community,” Cook wrote in a text reviewed by The Current, also noting that the timing may not be right because Lafayette’s numbers are trending down. Cook withdrew her support last week. (Blalock did not respond to a request for comment.)
Still, Lazard marched on. Confident he would have the medical community behind him even as he faced down the reality his ordinance would fail, the councilman made calls to other local governments with mandates in place and incorporated into his proposal what he thought would work best for Lafayette, the largest city in the state without a local mandate. Lazard worked on the draft for two weeks and says he began circulating it early Friday afternoon, awaiting feedback from the medical community, particularly Kaufman, hoping to incorporate their input ahead of releasing it late Monday.
It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, two hours before the meeting was scheduled to start, that he received a letter signed by Kaufman and 25 other local physicians from both systems, among them Dr. Garo Akoghlanian, the head of infectious disease at Ochsner Lafayette General.
Anxious to get his ducks in a row ahead of the meeting, Lazard pored through the statement for wording to support his ordinance but instead found himself reading what he characterizes as a PSA. Rather than express support for the local ordinance, the letter emailed to him instead stressed that the science behind masking is settled, urged it as an ongoing public health strategy and endorsed the statewide mandate (which is not being enforced in Lafayette): “Although vaccines have been introduced in our community, the work to fight COVID is not done. The new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus pose a real public health challenge as some new strains may be able to infect 80% of those who suffered previous COVID infection,” the letter reads (view it in its entirety here.)
The Lafayette letter stands in stark contrast to one issued by Baton Rouge’s business, medical and nonprofit communities in July when Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome signed an executive order requiring masks in the city. “Last week, Mayor Broome issued an executive order requiring all commercial and nonprofit entities in the City Parish providing goods or services directly to the public, to require employees and customers to wear masks. We strongly support the Mayor’s decision and courageous action to help reduce the community spread of the COVID 19 virus,” reads the letter, which has 32 endorsements, including those of the CEOs of Ochsner Baton Rouge and Our Lady of the Lake, as well as the CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber (view the BR letter in its entirety here.)
In an emailed statement to The Current today, Kaufman reiterated that masking is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19, but did not address his reasons for discarding the direct support expressed in the original draft.
“I believe that community masking is in the best interest of public health during this pandemic,” Kaufman wrote. “We offer support with medical science, our area of expertise. We leave public policy decisions and their enforcement in the hands of local officials.”
Neither Lourdes nor Ochsner Lafayette General formally backed the ordinance, and have stuck by general statements about the efficacy of masks. The hospital community, at one time openly criticized by Mayor-President Josh Guillory, has appeared to avoid the perception of entering political controversy, often leaving a vacuum for rancor and misinformation to fill.
“I’m disappointed, very disappointed because this is a medical issue. … It appears as though somewhere along the way support got derailed I guess,” Lazard says, regretting that politics appears to have won the day.
“Last night and this morning I just wasn’t feeling it, but I’m starting to get rejuvenated again,” says the councilman, who has been battling leukemia and is still recovering from a transplant last year.
Lazard and Councilman Pat Lewis, the only two Black reps on the Council (Covid disproportionately affects communities of color) and the only two Dems, supported the mandate. Republican City Council members Cook, Liz Hebert and Andy Naquin all voted against the ordinance without comment last night. It was Cook who had joined with Lazard last year to push for a local mandate, which both decided to back away from after the mayor-president assured them local officials were helping the state with enforcement.
The vote a foregone conclusion, Lazard nevertheless made a point of getting the mayor-president on record confirming no local resources are being used to enforce the governor’s mask mandate (or any of the state’s restrictions).
“For everyone that’s wondering why we need this when we have a governor’s mandate, that’s your answer,” Lazard said at the meeting, when the mayor-president acknowledged he had no intent of stepping up local enforcement for the statewide mandate. The councilman also quoted Logue’s and Kaufman’s earlier statements to local media to make sure Lafayette residents know where the city’s two chief medical officers stand.
There were impassioned speeches at the City Council meeting from some Lafayette residents like Gayle George, who last month lost her husband, David Guarisco, to the deadly virus, and physicians did show up to back the ordinance. Speaking with exhausted but fervent urging about the need for a local mandate were Dr. Ernest Kinchen and Dr. Britni Hebert, both of whom Lazard asked to attend and address the council.
Speaking with professional expertise and from experience on the front lines, the doctors’ statements bore striking contrasts with the voices of opposition, like Eli Odinet, the teenage son of Lafayette Parish coroner Dr. Ken Odinet and new Lafayette City Court Judge Michelle Odinet, who notably refuses to wear masks in her courtroom to the frustration and concern of local attorneys. The young Odinet, who bemoaned how the restrictions are affecting Lafayette’s social life, called the coronavirus “the cold,” suggested the restrictions are punishing healthy people who stay in shape and have strong immune systems, and talked of how masks are causing “depleted social skills.”
While hospitalizations and cases in Lafayette have declined after a long third surge, Mardi Gras’ weekend approach threatens another spike. Authorities in New Orleans have shut down the city’s festivities, while LCG, by contrast, has made no effort to curb the possibility of another super-spreader event around the holiday. New research shows that New Orleans’ Mardi Gras in 2020 accounted for 50,000 cases last year. While Lafayette remains open, Lazard worries those revelers and the virus they carry may find their way here.