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After Jazz Fest Cancellation, New Orleans’s 2021 Fall Festival Season Is in Peril

With Jazz Fest called off and additional restrictions looming in New Orleans, the fate of remaining fall festivals and events is up in the air

Jazz Fest 2015
Josh Brasted/ENOLA

For the second year in a row, organizers behind the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have canceled the world-renowned music, food, and cultural event at the Fairgrounds, citing the “exponential growth of new COVID cases in New Orleans and the region.” Jazz Fest announced that the festival would no longer take place this October as scheduled on Sunday, August 8, about a week after tickets for the Rolling Stones’s October 13 performance went on sale.

Though Jazz Fest organizers made the decision to cancel the festival independently, as event producers and city officials both noted, the major move comes less than a month after New Orleans officials sounded the alarm regarding fall festivals amid a concerning uptick in COVID-19 cases in July, locally and statewide. On Monday, organizers canceled Red Dress Run, an annual charity run and day-drinking party in the French Quarter scheduled for this weekend, and last week, the downtown block party that accompanies White Linen Night was called off days before it was set to take place.

Among the many reverberating impacts of not holding Jazz Fest for the second year in a row is the impact on the festival’s ever-popular food vendors, people that in some cases depend on the annual event for the bulk of their revenue. John Ed Laborde, the legendary “Crawfish Bread Man,” serves one of the most iconic dishes at Jazz Fest, and has done so since 1984. He told Eater news of the festival’s second cancellation is a heartbreaking blow, if not entirely unexpected.

“On Sunday, after they let us know and the news came out, the phone just started buzzing and ringing off the hook,” Laborde says. “My wife said it was like a funeral, with everyone sending their sympathies. Everyone in our community knows how important Jazz Fest is to us.”

Laborde lives and runs his business, NOLA Crawfish Bread, in Marksville, Louisiana, about three hours away from New Orleans. He says he was “nervously hesitant” about this year’s new fall dates, and conservatively planned for about half of his normal sales. Then, the Rolling Stones show was announced for October 13, smack in the middle of the week, presenting a “logistical nightmare,” Laborde says. “Still, we were going to do it. “Now, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s not going to happen again this year, and we’ll just have to make do. We shipped last year, we figured it out. We’ll be alright.”

Laborde considers himself one of the lucky ones. “I worry about the other vendors. Some of them, this is most of their income every year.” He says Jazz Fest is so much about the relationships with the other vendors, with customers — “It’s like a big family.” Laborde says he was momentarily feeling sorry for himself about the news this week when he received a text with a photo of his breads on a plate, overlooking a view of Martha’s Vineyard. Last week, he successfully shipped bread to New Zealand — both are a testament to the importance of the vendors of Jazz Fest, which have become nearly as iconic as the long-running festival’s musical performances.

As of now, other food-heavy festivals are still on: the French Quarter Festival, postponed from its normal spring dates to September 30–October 3, 2021, and Beignet Fest, scheduled for September 25. The National Fried Chicken Festival is currently still on for October 23 and 24, and Buku Music + Arts Project is set for October 22 and 23, as is a hybrid digital version of Tales of the Cocktail, September 20–23, 2021.

Still, New Orleans officials warned Tuesday that “all options are on the table” in terms of additional restrictions for Orleans Parish, measures that could be put in place as early as this week. City spokesperson Beau Tidwell said that “We are in a dangerous spot and we need to do more. What that looks like, we’ve not yet determined.” On July 30, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell reinstated a mask mandate for the parish, followed a few days later by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issuing a statewide mask mandate. Some New Orleans restaurants, bars, and venues have now instituted their own vaccination policies for indoor dining and admission, a number currently hovering around 20.

“You know, we just love this festival,” Laborde told Eater. “We love New Orleans, we love being a part of it. We just have to hope we’re going to be past all this by the spring, and that we’ll get to see all our friends again.”

The next Jazz Fest is scheduled for 2022 over its normal weekends, April 29 to May 8.