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Court puts New Orleans COVID lawsuit on hold as city rolls back mask mandate

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a COVID-19 memorial event outside of Gallier Hall. January 19, 2021.
Phoebe Jones
/
WWNO
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a COVID-19 memorial event outside of Gallier Hall. January 19, 2021.

A New Orleans Civil Court judge placed a lawsuit challenging the city’s COVID restrictions on hold after city officials lifted their mask mandate and said they intend to end the city’s vaccine-or-test requirement for most indoor settings later this month.

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Rachael Johnson granted a continuance without setting a date for the case to resume at the request of the city’s attorneys. Attorneys for the more than 100 plaintiffs in the case agreed to put the case on hold indefinitely.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys celebrated city officials’ decision to lift the mask mandate, which they said was a result of their legal pressure. The mandate was lifted just hours before New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Orleans Parish School Board President Olin Parker were scheduled to testify in the case.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry, who joined the lawsuit last month, announced Wednesday that Cantrell and Parker had been subpoenaed to testify in the case.

The pair likely would have faced questions about why they had been photographed without masks alongside several other city officials at a Mardi Gras ball while the mandate remained in effect for the city.

"Perhaps this was about politics after all,” Landry said in a statement. “After our subpoenas were issued, the mayor had a choice, lift her mandates or face even more public scrutiny, including criticism of her choice to go maskless while requiring others to mask.”

City officials said the lawsuit had no bearing on the decision.

“As Dr. (Jennifer) Avegno made clear at yesterday’s press conference, this litigation in no way impacts the public health policies for the NOHD (New Orleans Health Department) or Administration,” city communications director Beau Tidwell said. “Policy decisions related to public health guidelines were made based on data and best available information, and were not influenced by, or made in relation to, this legal proceeding or any other.”

City officials signaled last month that they intended to keep the city’s mask mandate and other COVID restrictions in place until after Mardi Gras, even as cities across the country relaxed the mitigation measures as COVID infections and hospitalizations waned. But not even a week before Fat Tuesday, officials then hinted at the possibility of relaxed COVID protocols soon to come.

Avegno, the city health director, announced the end of the mask mandate at a press conference Wednesday and said the city’s vaccine-or-test requirement for entry into most indoor spaces could expire on March 21.

The lawsuit largely focuses on the city’s vaccine-or-test requirement for anyone entering Orleans Parish buildings, but also takes aim at the city mask mandate that was lifted Thursday.

Tidwell said with the mask mandate lifted and the vaccine-or-test requirement set to expire, both the city and the plaintiffs agreed to the continuance, which puts the case on hold indefinitely. Though, lawyers for the plaintiffs could ask the court to take the case back up if the city reimposes those mandates in the future.

Tidwell said the city “stands ready to defend any challenges to our lawful, rational and science-based health measures implemented for the health and safety of our citizens and visitors alike.”

Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, one of the attorneys representing the more than 100 New Orleans-area parents who filed the suit, said they were poised to reignite their legal challenge if the city fails to lift its vaccine requirement on March 21 or ratchet up mitigation measures amid another surge of the virus or in preparation for another large event.

“The best way for us to handle it strategically was to say, ‘If you don’t lift it on the 21st, we’re going to ask you to come into court on the 22nd.’” Rodrigue said.

Like Landry, Rodrigue speculated that the city’s vaccine loosening of restrictions was a direct response to the pending lawsuit and Cantrell’s looming court testimony.

“We wanted to make sure that [Cantrell] wasn’t going to lift the mandate to avoid having to testify, then put it back in a couple of months,” Rodrigue said. “So we asked the court to leave this petition open so that if she did lift it just to evade the judicial process, then we’re right back in court in enough time to get some relief on the injunction.”

Rodrigue is working alongside Alexandria-based attorney Jimmy Faircloth Jr., who unsuccessfully challenged several of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ state-level COVID restrictions. It is unclear how this latest challenge will play out, but the plaintiffs have already suffered two early setbacks.

Last month, Judge Rachael Johnson declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order blocking the city’s mask and vaccine mandates, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ emergency request for the court to hear the case and rule on the legality of the mandates before Mardi Gras.

If the city’s rollback of the COVID restrictions holds, Rodrigue said she and her colleagues are prepared to shift their attention to individual New Orleans public schools that may choose to keep mask and vaccine requirements in place.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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