Lafayette City Council members make second push for local mask mandate

Months after backing away from an effort to push forward on a local mask mandate, City Council members Nanette Cook and Glenn Lazard are determined to succeed this time. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Still failing to see enforcement of the governor’s mask mandate, City Council members are taking a second shot at passing a local one in a special meeting. The same council members previously backed off an effort to push forward on an emergency mask ordinance in July after Mayor-President Josh Guillory assured them the state order would be sufficiently enforced.

“We got derailed last time because we were told [the state order] was being enforced,” says City Councilwoman Nanette Cook. “The administration said it was being enforced. Maybe that was so for a time, but it’s gotten out of hand.”

“We both regret not proceeding with what we had contemplated doing months ago,” Councilman Glenn Lazard says. Lazard says he and Cook are still working on a date for the special meeting to bring forth the new ordinance as quickly as possible.

Advocates want action now. Lafayette resident Peter Guarisco is elated that the council plans to move forward with an emergency ordinance. Just this week, experts have begun weighing in with predictions that one more month of nationwide masking (the quality of the mask is crucial) in risky settings, combined with the vaccine rollout, could potentially halt transmission of the deadly coronavirus.

Guarisco lost his father, Peter “David” Guarisco, to Covid on Jan. 16 and found himself in a heated dispute last week with Martin & Castille funeral home over its refusal to enforce the state’s mask mandate (Lafayette PD was called but offered no assistance).

He and his siblings have since become activists for mitigation measures to stop the spread, launching the grassroots initiative Mask-Up, Y’all (which Guarisco says the mayor-president has offered resources to support, specifically public service announcements).

“The experience we had really drove home the point that Lafayette is sleeping on this. There’s no awareness, there’s no urgency,” Guarisco says. “We need to do everything we can right now because of this little window where the vaccines are about to start flowing, and then we’re racing against these new strains that are easier to catch and deadlier.”

Hoping to encourage Guillory to be part of the solution, Guarisco urged the mayor by phone Tuesday to sign an executive order that would give support to businesses like Martin & Castille. Guillory has a checkered history with the mitigation measures, initially signing on to help state officials but then quietly backing off of cooperation altogether.

Despite assertions that it’s been actively policing potential violators, the state, too, has dropped the ball. The mask mandate, in particular, is almost solely dependent on cooperation from local business owners; it’s not even regularly enforced at some public meetings and public buildings, like City Hall, where it’s common to find security guards who aren’t wearing masks.

“I let him know that everything is already there, set up for him. We’ve got the 311 hotline to call and all the things that you can enforce are already there,” Guarisco says of his conversion with Guillory. “It’s health and safety violations, it’s trespassing, it’s public nuisance ordinances,” he continues. “I don’t want to ruin anybody. I just want to make it an uncomfortable penalty that when you think about it, it would just be easier to wear a mask.”

Guillory, who Guarisco says was sincere in his condolences, was at times contradictory during the phone call. The mayor suggested masking has been more controversial than hygiene and social distancing in preventing Covid’s spread, and went on to claim there’s been conflicting information about its effectiveness, according to Guarisco. Meanwhile, Guillory also pointed out that Lafayette Consolidated Government has distributed more than 1,000 face masks to local businesses and has always emphasized the importance of masking.

The mayor’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, says Guillory does believe masks are effective in preventing the spread. “He has always said that people should be wearing masks,” says Angelle, who was on the call with Guarisco. “But enforcement is a challenge for local governments, which is why the governor has directed the state fire marshal to be the enforcing authority.”

While very early messaging questioned whether masks offered protection, a substantial body of science has since found that masks work.

Guillory has long opposed a local decree to slow the spread of coronavirus, saying last year, in response to Lazard’s request for an executive order, that such measures infringe on the public’s liberties.

“And so essentially [Guillory] wasn’t having it,” notes Guarisco, saying he tried to explain how his own thinking has evolved about the pressure on local business owners. “He just kind of gave it up and said what we are doing is just fine. If it were up to him, Lafayette is not going to take any more measures.”

Despite Peter Guarisco's pleas with a Lafayette Police officer to enforce the governor's statewide mask mandate at Martin & Castille funeral home, the officer refused to act.

Business owners are caught in the middle. “I think Martin & Castille, they’re just in a corner. I really, truly think they want to keep all the patrons safe, but they don’t have the leadership backing them,” Guarisco says. So there’s no guidance for them to do the right thing. And at that point it becomes, and it shouldn’t be, a business decision versus a health and safety decision. Who are they gonna cater to, who are they gonna be in favor with and out of favor with in town? [But if] Lafayette government is saying this, all businesses now have that protection and they can now conduct business safely.”

Both Cook and Lazard say they’ve been seeing so much inconsistency with business owners and believe a local ordinance could get everyone on the same page (there is clear evidence of more buy-in/compliance and a decrease in transmission when a local mandate is in place).

“The irony is it should be in effect,” because of the state requirement, Cook says. And while she understands the challenges for business owners, she also believes some are “not thinking about the flip side,” i.e., that they are also losing business by not requiring masks. “If I hear they’re not wearing masks, I’m not going,” she says.

Lazard says late last year he learned through media reports, while he was in Houston for cancer treatment, that Guillory had instructed the local fire and police departments to stop enforcing the governor’s Covid restrictions. “That was the beginning of the tipping point for me,” says Lazard, who this month returned to his council seat. He says he was moved to act this week after seeing the memorial that went up Sunday honoring those who have died from Covid in Lafayette Parish, particularly as it came so soon after reading about how the Guarisco family’s grief was compounded by those who refused to wear masks at the funeral home. “It definitely caught my attention,” the councilman says. “It was a reminder that the situation is very dire, and we need to do something.”

The ordinance needs three votes to pass and four to override a veto by the mayor-president.

Council Chairwoman Liz Hebert could not be reached for comment. Councilman Pat Lewis supports the effort; Councilman Andy Naquin says he wants to see a draft before making a decision.

“My own company [Doug Ashy Building Materials] doesn’t enforce a mask mandate for customers, but they do it for employees,” Naquin offers. “I personally think it’s overboard,” he says of the state mandate.

Like many businesses in Baton Rouge and its unincorporated areas, Magpie Café on Perkins Road has been displaying a masks-required sign since Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome signed an executive order mandating them last summer. Lafayette City Council members are looking to other cities for guidance on a local ordinance.

Details are still being worked out, Cook says, but they are looking to model the local ordinance after other Louisiana cities, including Baton Rouge, where a mask mandate went into effect in July by executive order of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. Enforcement there consists of a courtesy reminder followed by a written warning for a second offense. After a third violation, law enforcement officials can issue a summons. There appears to be tremendous buy-in, as many Baton Rouge businesses prominently display signage about the local mandate.

“We really need enforcement,” Guarisco says, frustrated. “To change the culture quickly, we really need the teeth of the government to take a bite out of this and help out.”

The Parish Council wants in on the conversation. “I would give it strong consideration,” says Parish Council Chairman John Guilbeau, though he, too, remains concerned about enforcement. Guilbeau says he is awaiting a draft of the ordinance from Cook and declined to weigh in until he sees it. “It is desperate times,” Guilbeau acknowledges. “I share the concerns.”