Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory throws beads during the King’s Parade on Feb. 25, 2020. Original photograph by Travis Gauthier. Image by the Bayou Brief.

Josh Guillory’s Parade of Fools

The Mayor-President of Lafayette, Louisiana has repeatedly refused to enact or enforce commonsense restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite having to quarantine less than a month ago after being exposed to the coronavirus, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory attended a maskless Mardi Gras event this past weekend. In photographs circulating on social media, the 38-year-old Guillory and his wife Jamie appear indoors alongside several other costumed revelers.

Guillory has not made much of a secret over his opposition to social gathering restrictions and mask mandates. While his laissez-faire approach has been pilloried by public health experts, it’s endeared him with many in the reliably red capital of Cajun Country, which became increasingly radicalized during the Trump presidency.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health, the virus has claimed the lives of 1,081 people in the Lafayette area and infected at least 52,799 others, including more than 21,000 in Lafayette Parish alone.

In the first week of January, shortly before Guillory’s own exposure to the virus, several Acadiana Mardi Gras events were canceled, including Church Point’s traditional Courir de Mardi Gras and the Brazilian-themed Krewe of Rio parade. At the time, Guillory’s office indicated that they wouldn’t be canceling Mardi Gras events, despite state data revealing that nearly a quarter of all coronavirus cases ever identified in Louisiana occurred during December 2020, as the third wave struck the state. 

“We have no intention of canceling Mardi Gras,” said Jamie Angelle, spokesperson for Guillory. “Lafayette Consolidated Government doesn’t put on Mardi Gras, the various associations do. . . if they decide to move forward, they’ll have to do so with whatever state restrictions are in place.”

Mardi Gras parades and events have been conclusively and irrefutably linked to the spread of COVID-19. A recent study found that last year’s festivities in New Orleans led to more than 50,000 confirmed cases in Louisiana.

Despite Guillory’s refusal to cancel parades in the interest of public health, local krewes took it upon themselves to make the decision. In January, the Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association and the Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Association both decided to cancel all of their events.

“It was a difficult call,” John Chappuis, a board member for Greater Southwest, told Leslie Turk of The Current, claiming that Guillory had hoped they could come up with a way to continue the festivities. “He was a champion of us trying to do this,” Chappuis said.

“It’s been some seven decades since this disruption has happened in Lafayette, when parades were called off during World War II and several years later during the Korean War,” Turk noted. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell not only cancelled parades and second lines; last week, she also ordered bar closures from Friday, Feb. 12 through Fat Tuesday. The last time Mardi Gras was canceled in New Orleans was in 1979, as a result of a police strike.

Whereas Cantrell has been criticized for being too draconian, critics of Guillory argue that his inaction amounts to negligence.

In July 2020, Guillory rejected the idea of implementing a local mask mandate at a time when the Acadiana region led the state in new coronavirus cases, saying, “with freedom comes risk.” Guillory did not believe the basic precaution of requiring a cloth facial covering to reduce the spread of a deadly virus was justified.

“You don’t want to use an atomic bomb when an M-16 will work,” Guillory said in response to pleas from his own city council to implement the protective measure. Guillory did eventually “recognize” the governor’s statewide mask mandate. However, he has refused to allow Lafayette city officials to actually enforce it. 

Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory (left) and U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA03). In 2018, Guillory, then claiming to be a moderate conservative, attempted to unseat Higgins. After finishing in a distant third place with a paltry 13% of the vote, Guillory rebranded himself as a Trumpian conservative, and in 2019, he was elected Lafayette Mayor-President in a runoff with 56% of the vote. Image credit: Josh Guillory, Facebook.

On Tuesday, the Lafayette city council again narrowly rejected implementing its own mask mandate after one of the ordinance’s co-sponsors, City Councilwoman Nanette Cook, withdrew her support, caving into pressure from right-wing extremists and fringe conspiracists, including Holly Sanders, an outspoken devotee of QAnon best known for a viral video in which she claimed that she was not allowed to vote in the 2020 Louisiana presidential primary even though she was a registered Republican. The video had been viewed more than four million times before fact-checkers discovered that Sanders was actually a registered Democrat.

Prior to this week’s city council meeting, Sanders, now claiming to represent Lafayette’s “Free Breathers,” posted a video about her reasons for opposing the mask mandate. “We were all taught to not trust someone with a mask on, to fear someone with a mask on,” she said. “However, now overnight, as of last year, this so-called ‘pandemic’ slash ‘election infection’ has caused the absolute opposite. Suddenly, people without a mask are to be feared; those that show their identity are to be feared.”

Councilmember Glenn Lazard asked Josh Guillory if it was still his position to not use city resources to enforce the statewide mandate.

“That is correct,” Guillory said

In seeking a local ordinance to enforce the state’s mask mandate, Councilmember Lazard originally had the support of Lafayette’s medical community. In a Feb. 1 letter, a group of local physicians sent Lazard a letter expressing support for the ordinance. “We, the undersigned physicians of Lafayette Parish support a local mask mandate,” the letter read.

However, once word of the new proposal got out, it was lambasted by conservative groups like Citizens for a New Louisiana, and misinformation circulated online about the efficacy of masks. The ordinance became a political issue, rather than a medical one.

Two hours before the meeting was set to begin, Lazard received a different letter from the same group of physicians, according to The Current. The new letter expressed that “community masking is in the best interest of public health during this pandemic,” but it no longer contained language in support of the ordinance. “We leave public policy decisions and their enforcement in the hands of local officials,” the letter read.

Despite this, some local medical professionals urged the council to approve the mandate. “I’m telling you that a local mask ordinance will save lives and if you are strong enough to vote for it you will save lives,” said Dr. Britni Hebert, a front-line doctor in Lafayette.  

When the first mask mandate proposal was rejected last July, it was, in part, because council members believed a local ordinance was unnecessary since the state mandate was already being enforced. However, they were misled.

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

To be clear, Josh Guillory has publicly expressed that he believes that people should wear a mask to help slow the spread of the virus. However, many residents are not heeding his flaccid call. Instead, they’re following his example. Videos of packed local bars have circulated widely, and business owners have expressed outrage over the city failing to enforce the mandate.

Throughout the pandemic, Guillory has gotten in the way of every public health measure enacted to combat it, even those recommended by then-President Trump’s White House. 

This latest incident isn’t the first time Guillory has made headlines for his antics. In September of last year, his office filed a lawsuit against comedian John Merrifield for promoting a fake antifa Facebook event called “ANTIFA Takes River Ranch.” 

The event page was loaded with obviously satirical and snarky language such as, “Card-carrying ANTIFA members ONLY!” and “No children or minors. Large dogs welcome. Arms optional. Legs encouraged.” 

Despite the event being blatantly phony, Guillory used it as a political opportunity during the height of national fears over antifa attacks last summer.

“Here in Lafayette Parish, we have absolutely zero tolerance for threats made against our citizens or their property,” Guillory said in a statement on July 7. “We will act accordingly to prevent these situations from happening.”

Guillory paid five officers and one supervisor overtime to investigate the matter, diverting patrol units to the wealthy River Ranch neighborhood, leaving the rest of the city with reduced manpower. The lawsuit seeks up to $75,000 in damages against Merrifield, who Guillory described on a local radio broadcast as an “individual in New York that thinks it’s funny to make antifa jokes here.”

Interestingly, despite taking to the airwaves and issuing statements to the press regarding the fake antifa event to stir up local outrage, Guillory held a different view of the media after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

“In circumstances like these, heated rhetoric from any quarter is not helpful,” Guillory said in a written statement. “Neither is the hysteria of the media, flaming the fears of the country.”

Whether it’s in his official capacity as Mayor-President of Lafayette or at a clandestine Mardi Gras speakeasy, Josh Guillory has not prioritized the health of Lafayette residents over business interests or his own personal desire to laissez les bons temps rouler.