If you have seen the blockbuster film Jaws you are probably familiar with the character of Mayor Larry Vaughn. Vaughn is the guy who famously decides to ignore the fact the there is a Great White Shark eating people offshore and proceeds with the town’s 4th of July celebration that brings huge crowds to the beaches. That decision sets the stage for disaster.
Vaughn is, of course, a fictional character. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is not. Cantrell is the mayor of New Orleans, which now enjoys the distinction of being Ground Zero for the coronavirus epidemic in the United States and has the highest infection rate per capita in the nation. That this is happening a matter of weeks after Cantrell made the decision to proceed with Mardi Gras seems considerably more than a coincidence. Even the Governor of Louisiana by this point has admitted publicly that he believes Mardi Gras is responsible for the rapid spread of the disease in the state.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a massive event with parades that occur over a span of weeks and culminates on Fat Tuesday, which fell on February 25th this year. Estimates are that 1.4 million people crowd into New Orleans every year for the festival. The vast majority of those people end up jammed into the narrow streets of the French Quarter drinking, dancing and jostling for space.
Everything about the environment of Mardi Gras in New Orleans sounds tailor-made for the rapid spread of a highly contagious disease, but Mayor Cantrell wants you to know that she does not accept any of the blame for allowing the festivities to proceed in the face of an exploding pandemic. Speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday Cantrell had this to say, ‘The federal government did not issue any red flags and, therefore, we moved forward with federal agents being a part of our unified command on the ground…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.”’
Translation. It’s Trump’s fault.
There is no question but that the pandemic has grown much worse since Fat Tuesday, but is it really accurate to say that Cantrell had no reason to worry a month ago about the wisdom of jamming a million-plus people bound on epic debauchery into a crowded inner-city environment? Let’s take a quick look at just some of the things that had transpired by the time New Orleans made its fateful decision.
On December 31, 2019, Chinese officials informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about a cluster of patients with a mysterious type of pneumonia. Subsequent information has shown that the Chinese already knew of the disease well before this, but this marked their first acknowledgment to the international community that they had a problem.
January 11, 2020, China announced the first death from the coronavirus.
January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan in China was placed under quarantine. All of Hubei Province was placed under quarantine a few days later.
January 26, 2020, the Louisiana Department of Health issued a notice entitled “Guidance for the Identification of Persons with Suspected 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).” Somebody was already worried.
January 31, 2020, the WHO declared a global public health emergency. The same day President Trump banned foreign nationals from entering the U.S. if they were in China during the prior two weeks.
February 3, 2020, the Louisiana Department of Health issued guidance entitled “Interim Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Patients with Confirmed 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019- nCoV) or Patients Under Investigation for 2019-nCoV in Healthcare Settings.” The worry at the Department of Health had clearly evolved to the point where specific guidance on how to handle the infected needed to be issued.
February 5, 2020, the New Orleans Health Department held a planning meeting focused on the coronavirus and the growing pandemic. The announcement of the results of that meeting included this statement, “Our public health and healthcare systems are ready for Mardi Gras and the coronavirus poses a very low risk to the Carnival celebrations.”
During February 7–23, 2020, the largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside mainland China occurred on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined in the port of Yokohama, Japan, on February 3rd. On February 5th, passengers were confined to their cabins. Out of 3711 passengers and crew on board, 712 were diagnosed with coronavirus. Hundreds of Americans were among the passengers and had to brought home and quarantined.
During February 11–21, 2020, the Grand Princess cruise ship suffered a similar outbreak of the disease. Subsequent outbreaks on multiple other cruises were identified shortly thereafter.
February 8, 2020, the death toll in China surpassed that from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.
February 11, 2020, coronavirus cases in South Korea started to spike.
February 12, 2020, the outbreak in Iran began.
February 19, 2020, the outbreak in Italy began.
On February 24th, a local New Orleans paper, the Louisiana Weekly, published an article entitled, “Five things to help weigh your coronavirus risk.”
On February 25th, Fat Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control issued a stark warning that the growing pandemic would hit the United States with full force and that preparation needed to be made now for the inevitable spread of the disease inside the United States. Localities were advised to take precautions including the cancellation of large community-based events.
The stock market fell over 800 points on the news. It had already fallen 1000 points the day before due to concerns about the impact of the worldwide pandemic.
The same day, February 25th, local New Orleans TV station interviewed Mardi Gras participants dressed in doctor’s gowns, calling themselves the Krewe da Flu and giving bystanders jelly shot “inoculations” against the coronavirus. Another group of Mardi Gras partyers dressed as bottles of Corona beer with labels saying, “Go Viral” and “You give me fever” was interviewed the same day by the station.
The New Orleans Mardi Gras website for February 26th showed the cancellation of at least four parades scheduled to be held in the city, all due to sudden concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
On February 27th, Danae Columbus, a local New Orleans opinion columnist wrote a piece entitled “Is the Coronavirus the Next Katrina for New Orleans” in the New Orleans Uptown Messenger. That piece read in part, “I am not a naysaying fatalist or someone who rushes to conclusions early. But last night I went to my neighborhood grocery store and picked up 10 cases of bottled water and placed it next to the five cases I bought the other day. I intend to get another 10 cases this weekend and begin stocking up on canned fruits and vegetables too. And antiseptic cleaning supplies and cough medicine. Am I opening a bodega? No, I am preparing for what could be life-as-unusual if the coronavirus really hits New Orleans.”
The same day the director of the New Orleans Health Department said there was no heightened danger of contracting the coronavirus in the New Orleans area. “We certainly have a lot of travelers, but so do many, many, many other cities,” said Avegno. “At this point, we don’t think there is any increased risk to our general public based on what we’re seeing.”
I wonder what she and the Mayor think now about that assessment.
There was a time in America when we believed in accountability. Public servants who screwed up and endangered the lives of millions of fellow Americans would be sacked and replaced with someone who could get the job done. These days it seems more likely that incompetence will be rewarded with promotion and a bigger budget.
We can’t afford to continue down a path where passing the buck and refusing to take responsibility becomes the norm. Larry Vaughn was a fictional character. Cantrell is not, and she just fed a whole lot of people to the sharks – for real.