News + Notes

Lafayette City Council support for local mask mandate unraveling

Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate
A white flag honoring the memory of David Gaurisco who died of Covid in mid-January flutters in the wind at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Sunday. Guarisco's family is pushing for a local mask mandate to protect the Lafayette community from the deadly virus.
UPDATE: The mayor-president's spokesman said Tuesday that the m-p will not interfere in enforcement should the mask ordinance pass. And City Councilman Glenn Lazard says he is moving forward despite losing Councilwoman Nanette Cook as co-sponsor of the ordinance. Below is the statement Cook released Tuesday afternoon. "After numerous conversations with constituents and members of our medical community, I have decided to withdraw my support for a local mask ordinance. As a lifelong member of this community, I have found it heart-breaking to see the devastating effect that Covid-19 has had on Lafayette Parish. As a member of the City Council, I believe that it has been my duty to do everything I can to help keep our community as safe as possible under the circumstances. And it was in that spirit that I joined the recent discussions to consider a temporary ordinance to require the wearing of masks in certain situations, primarily indoor spaces frequented by the public. I believed that such a temporary commitment to a slight inconvenience would help our community stay safe and help us more quickly return to life as we knew it before Covid. I have heard the concerns of certain constituents who are troubled about the prospect of government overreach, and I have spoken with several medical professionals – some of whom doubt the efficacy of such public mask ordinances. Moreover, I appreciate the concerns regarding the practical difficulties associated with the enforcement of such a mask ordinance. With the recent surge in the infection rate apparently returning to its pre-Holiday levels, and with the ongoing vaccine rollout, I have reason to be encouraged that the worst may be behind us, hopefully making more aggressive measures unnecessary. Regardless of our motivation, though, whether arising from our concern for our neighbors or whether in begrudging compliance with a governmental mandate, it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to stem the tide of this virus. We all know someone who has been affected by this terrible virus and we all want to get back to how life used to be in pre-Covid times. And the sooner each of us takes personal responsibility, not only for ourselves but for our neighbors as well, the sooner we will be rid of this affliction. Although I will be withdrawing my support for a local mask ordinance, I would like, nevertheless, to personally plead with each of you to do your part. Like many in our community, I have not been able to visit my mother in the nursing home in several months and am saddened by the isolation our elderly loved ones have had to endure. Nevertheless, we must continue to stay vigilant and protect our most vulnerable if we are to put this episode behind us."

The gist: A local emergency mask ordinance that last week seemed headed toward passage is stumbling.

City Councilman Glenn Lazard, a co-sponsor of the proposed ordinance, which would primarily affect businesses and their customers, said at Sunday’s white flag memorial for Covid victims that he hoped to have a draft of the ordinance ready Tuesday.

But support for what has been a political hot potato had already begun to crumble late last week. Council members have expressed a number of concerns, among them that Mayor-President Josh Guillory may stymie or stall enforcement of the mandate if passed. 

Neither Guillory nor his spokesman responded to requests for comment about whether he would aim to block enforcement of a local ordinance.

(Update: At a press briefing Tuesday, Jamie Angelle said the m-p would do no such thing: “The law is the law,” Angelle said. “The mayor-president is 100% going to uphold the law.”)

While the governor has had a mask mandate and other restrictions in place since the summer, Lafayette officials were ordered by Guillory to stop assisting the state with enforcement in September after the Lafayette Fire Department cited Grouse Room, which is owned by one of Guillory’s supporters, for multiple violations of the governor’s Covid restrictions. Guillory said on KPEL Friday that cities like New Orleans are starting to loosen restrictions (percent positivity in New Orleans is under 5%, compared with Lafayette Parish’s almost 10%) and that President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate for federal government property only. 

“The City Council chair and vice chair want Lafayette to have a stricter mask mandate than even the Democrat governor or the Democrat president,” Guillory said on KPEL, apparently misspeaking about Councilwoman Liz Hebert’s role as a co-sponsor. Hebert chairs the City Council; Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who signed on with Lazard to co-sponsor the ordinance, is vice chair. 

“In a number of cases, they’ve created more backlash than compliance,” Guillory said of local mask mandates. “We don’t want that kind of confrontational situation here in Lafayette. A local mask mandate seems likely to have significant enforcement costs and may very well make our city less safe. If fully enforced, it will take police away from investigating and preventing murders and rapes, robberies, burglaries and other serious crimes in order to write masking tickets.”

Police officers contacted for this story say they would enforce an ordinance. “I think you have to enforce it, because if you don’t, that’s malfeasance in office,” says one Lafayette Police Department officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The mayor can’t tell you not to enforce a lawful order.”

Council members aren’t talking. Cook and Hebert declined to comment for this story. “I’m still waiting to see a draft of the proposed ordinance,” Hebert says, noting she would post the ordinance to her council Facebook page as soon as she receives it.

“I think maybe they jumped the gun with this informal call-in to the Council [office] and voice your opinion on legislation that has not yet materialized,” offers Peter Guarisco, who became an outspoken activist for stricter mitigation measures after losing his father to Covid last month and having to confront Martin & Castille funeral home for not adhering to the state mandate. “Let’s get the ordinance out there so people can have an honest debate. It should be a cut and paste from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport,” Guarisco says.

Lafayette is the largest city in the state without a mask mandate. 

As Lafayette and Acadiana hold at a high but steady plateau of cases, with new and more contagious variants on the way, Guarisco prays for relief. “People are saying our numbers are coming down, but they are terrible. Movement down is the right direction, but we’re still nowhere where we need to be,” Guarisco says. “Past bad behavior is no excuse for more bad behavior. 

“It seems like Glenn is really the only one who is resolute to see this thing through,” he continues. Councilman Pat Lewis also confirmed to The Current at Sunday’s memorial that he remains on board. 

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Lazard said he would have more to say on the ordinance Tuesday. 

This story was updated with a comment from a Lafayette Police Department officer.