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38th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell - Pre-Festival Atmosphere Photo by Skip Bolen/WireImage

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After Months of Anticipation, New Orleans’s Fall Festival Comeback Won’t Happen

Beignet Fest and the National Fried Chicken Festival have joined Jazz Fest and French Quarter Festival in canceling their 2021 dates

First, it was Jazz Fest. Then, French Quarter Festival, followed by Beignet Fest, and finally, on Thursday, August 19, the Fried Chicken Festival. After a series of event cancellations over the course of the last week and a half, prompted, in large part, by the spread of the highly contagious delta COVID variant and low vaccination rates statewide, there are hardly any New Orleans festivals left on the books for 2021.

The disappointing reality comes after months of buildup toward a return to normalcy marked by the city once again gathering around food and music. The pandemic first led to the cancellation of New Orleans’s famed festivals in March 2020, beginning with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience and Hogs for the Cause and culminating with the cancellation of Jazz Fest. In spring 2021, organizers began tentatively scheduling events and festivals for the year, with the caveat that plans could change at any time. Many festivals typically held in the spring, like French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, postponed and picked dates in the fall instead, while some, like Hogs for the Cause and NOWFE, held modified events in the spring adhering to coronavirus restrictions in place at the time.

Now, the only festivals still planned for fall 2021 are a scaled-down version of Buku, October 22–23 [UPDATE: August 20, 2021, 2:45 p.m.: Buku canceled the 2021 festival on August 20], and Tales of the Cocktail, which will take place in a primarily digital format, in September. Voodoo Fest canceled its 2021 event in early June, before the delta variant’s impact was fully apparent, though organizers did not cite a reason at the time.

New Orleans officials first sounded the alarm regarding the packed fall schedule of festivals in mid-July, when cases of COVID-19 began dramatically ticking back up and vaccination rates were flattening. At the time, implementing safety measures like mask mandates for the unvaccinated and capacity limits at events were presented as possibilities if things didn’t improve. In the month since, much has changed — first, a mask advisory that went into effect on July 21, in which New Orleans officials “urged” everyone regardless of vaccination status to wear a mask inside. A week later, a trio of top music venues announced vaccination policies for admission, which eventually grew into dozens of local bars and restaurants doing the same. At the end of July, New Orleans reissued a mask mandate, followed a few days later by a statewide mandate from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

On August 12, a bigger mandate dropped: Orleans Parish would require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for indoor dining and drinking, just the third U.S. city to do so. The new rules, which went into place on Monday, August 16, apply to almost all indoor venues (restaurants, bars, music and event venues, stadiums, casinos, strip clubs) as well as outdoor events with more than 500 people if total attendance is more than 50 percent of the outdoor venue’s capacity — meaning that if the requirements were still in place a few months from now, some festivals would fall under the mandate.

The city’s mandate comes at a time when many New Orleans restaurants say staff members are exhausted from a year and a half of enforcing pandemic restrictions, prompting a number of spots to pause indoor dining while they develop a plan to meet the new requirements. Officials have said city agencies will begin checking that business are in compliance with the mandate on Monday, August 23.

As of Thursday, August 19, 39.5 percent of all Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated; in New Orleans 53.6 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. All of the festivals that have canceled their 2021 events in recent weeks — Voodoo Fest, Jazz Fest, FQF, Beignet Fest, and the Fried Chicken Festival — have said they plan to return in 2022.

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