Mayor LaToya Cantrell announces a citywide vaccine mandate to enter certain businesses on Aug. 12, 2021. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

People entering certain businesses in the city of New Orleans will need to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative COVID test beginning next week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced Thursday. 

The list of affected businesses includes bars, restaurants, breweries, gyms and fitness centers, stadiums (including the Superdome), event spaces, music venues, adult performance venues, casinos, racetracks. Outdoor events with more than 500 attendees will also fall under the new rules. Children under 12, who are not yet eligible for approved vaccines, will be exempt from the rules. 

The mandate will apply to anyone who enters the businesses — meaning both patrons and employees, Health Department Director Jennfier Avegno told The Lens. 

People will need to show they’ve received at least one dose of a vaccine. Acceptable forms of proof of vaccination include the physical vaccination card issued by health providers or a digital or printed copy of both sides of the card. Louisiana residents can also provide proof of vaccination through the free LA Wallet app. Similar apps utilized in other states can be used by out-of-town visitors. 

If people are not vaccinated, they must show proof of a negative COVID test that was given in the previous 72 hours.

The rules will go into effect Monday, Aug. 16, though Cantrell said that the city would begin “aggressive enforcement action” a week later on August 23 to give businesses time to adjust to the new rule.

The new rules will place New Orleans among a small group of American cities instating citywide vaccine mandates, including San Francisco and New York

“We’re here today because we really don’t have a choice,” Cantrell said at a Thursday press conference. “I do not want to bring this virus into yet another year. We cannot sustain that blow. And we shouldn’t have to.”

The announcement comes as the country deals with a fourth surge in the coronavirus pandemic, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, along with a sustained resistance among a small number of Americans to receiving a vaccine. Currently, half the country’s population is fully vaccinated against the virus. 

New Orleans’ vaccination rates are slightly higher than average, with 53 percent of the total population fully vaccinated. But Louisiana as a whole has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any state in the country, with only 38 percent of the total population fully vaccinated. 

That low vaccination rate has helped plunge the state into an especially dark chapter in the pandemic. Over the past two weeks, Louisiana has repeatedly broken previous state records for coronavirus hospitalizations since a state of emergency was first declared last year. On Thursday, city Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said that 85 to 95 percent of hospitalizations and deaths in the state are among the unvaccinated population. 

“Like me, I suspect you are tired, you are frustrated, and you are disappointed that a promise for an end to this pandemic this summer is now out of reach,” Avegno said. “This was truly the worst case scenario — a variant of the virus exponentially more infectious and a large statewide and regional population of unvaccinated individuals in which to spread like wildfire.”

The surge has pushed the region’s medical resources to the limit, as hospitals struggle to find staffing and space to handle the influx of patients. The federal government recently sent a team of medical staff to assist the Children’s Hospital New Orleans, which has reported a surge in serious pediatric cases. 

“Hospitals in New Orleans are strained beyond reason, with patients who are largely unvaccinated,” Cantrell said. “And most are not from Orleans Parish, they are from around the state of Louisiana.”

Hopes that the city’s vital and hard-hit tourism and hospitality industry would make a comeback in the fall were dashed after a string of major event cancellations in recent weeks, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Red Dress Run and White Linen Night.

Cantrell reinstated a city-wide indoor mask mandate at the end of July in response to the surge, and required all city employees to get vaccinated as a condition of their employment. But those measures haven’t been enough to turn around the deadly trend of rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

Cantrell pitched Thursday’s measure as a way to avoid instituting another shutdown or business restrictions, indoor capacity limits or extended school closures, all of which were imposed earlier in the pandemic. Schools in New Orleans and around the state have begun opening for in-person classes over the past two weeks.

NOLA Public Schools district officials have not issued a districtwide vaccine mandate, saying such decisions are in the hands of independent charter school boards. Most public high schools in the city are requiring staff, and students participating in extracurricular activities, to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. And on Thursday, school district  Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. proposed a mandatory vaccination policy for about 200 central office staffers.

Cantrell said that the city was receiving much less resistance to the mandate so far than it received last year regarding mask mandates and other business restrictions. 

“One of the things I’m definitely not in favor of is a shutdown,” she said. “We can’t take it. Our people can’t take it. Our businesses can’t take it.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...