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The Carnival season in New Orleans kicked off early January and ended Feb. 25.
There were few coronavirus cases in the United States at the time, and health officials then said there was no community spread.
The earliest indication we found from a federal agency saying that large events may need to be canceled came Feb. 26, after Mardi Gras celebrations.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on CNN was asked whether Mardi Gras celebrations in his state should have been called off earlier this year, in light of Louisiana now being considered a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic.
In New Orleans, the Carnival parades and celebrations started early January and ended Feb. 25 on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). It’s estimated that more than 1 million people go to New Orleans annually for the Carnival season and experts now believe the festivities fueled the outbreak.
"The biggest Mardi Gras parades in Louisiana took place on Feb. 25, just as the national outbreak was starting. In retrospect, if you knew then what you know now, would you have canceled Mardi Gras?" CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Edwards on April 5.
"Well, you know you don't get a do-over like that, Jake," Edwards said. "There was not a single suggestion by anyone, a doctor, a scientist, a political figure, that we needed to cancel Mardi Gras. And, you know, in February, we had a Super Bowl, and it wasn't canceled and so forth."
Edwards’ comments echoed a similar statement from New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell 10 days earlier on CNN that there were "no red flags" from federal officials to suggest the festivities should be aborted.
PolitiFact wondered if it’s true that there were no suggestions back in January or February that mass gatherings like Mardi Gras be canceled.
We reviewed statements from President Donald Trump, and guidance from federal and state public health agencies and found that Edwards was right. Public health professors in Louisiana also told PolitiFact that there was no suggestion, prior to Mardi Gras, of community spread in the United States, much less New Orleans.
The earliest suggestion we found from a federal agency saying that large events may need to be canceled came Feb. 26, after Mardi Gras celebrations.
On Twitter and in public remarks, Trump did not suggest that large public events be canceled. In India on Feb. 25 and before leaving for India on Feb. 23, Trump said the coronavirus was very "under control" in the United States.
Trump tweeted about the virus at least eight times from January to Feb. 25.
His tweets generally said that his administration was in contact with China and others about the coronavirus, offered praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the outbreak, and said that his administration was monitoring developments and had it under control.
On Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras, he tweeted:
When the U.S. declared the coronavirus a public health emergency on Jan. 31, the government did not say that mass gatherings be canceled.
Throughout January and most of February, U.S. officials said that the coronavirus risk to the American public was low and that they were not seeing community spread of the virus. By Feb. 25, there were 53 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and no deaths, according to data compiled by the World Health Organization.
On Feb. 26, the day after Mardi Gras, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor told reporters that the coronavirus situation was rapidly evolving and that the virus was spreading worldwide.
There were still only a few cases in the United States and no reports of community spread, but that would eventually change, said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She said there were mitigation guidelines that people and communities could take during a pandemic when there wasn’t a vaccine or proven medical treatment for the disease.
"On a larger scale, communities and cities may need to modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings," Messonnier said. Local communities would need to figure out which guidelines to implement and when, she said, based on the severity and the transmission of the disease and what could be done locally.
On Feb. 28, Messonnier said it was possible that a reported case in California "could be the first instance of community spread — meaning the illness was acquired through an unknown exposure in the community." But it could also be that the patient was exposed through contact to a traveler who was infected, Messonnier said. The immediate risk to the general American public remained low, she said.
On Feb. 29, a health official from Washington state, where there were four presumptive cases of COVID-19, joined a CDC press briefing and said the state was "starting to see some spread in the community" and the public risk was increasing. "Should we start to see more spread in Washington, we might consider recommending measures like cancelling large public events," said Kathy Lofy, the state health officer at the Washington state department of health.
There were no reported cases of coronavirus in Louisiana during the weeks-long Carnival celebrations. The state’s department of health in blog posts as late as Feb. 21 said that the coronavirus threat to Louisiana was very low and that people should be more worried about the flu. It recommended that people wash their hands and get a flu shot, since it was still flu season.
Louisiana’s first presumptive case of coronavirus was reported March 9, two days before the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic. On March 13, when Louisiana had 33 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, Edwards signed a proclamation to stop gatherings of more than 250 people and close all K-12 public schools statewide to slow the spread of the disease.
Based on models created mid-March, it’s assumed that infections silently spread in crowded parades during Mardi Gras, said Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an associate professor of epidemiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans. Soon after Mardi Gras, epidemiologists from nearby states began reporting confirmed cases of coronavirus in people who had traveled to New Orleans for the festivities. But at the time that parade-goers gathered in streets with family and friends, it was not known that the virus was in the state, Straif-Bourgeois said.
In his CNN interview with Edwards, Tapper said the Washington Post reported that governors had a gala in Washington, D.C. in early February, and that a group of governors met with federal experts who gave "the same dire warning that they’re giving now."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told the Washington Post, "The doctors and the scientists, they were telling us then exactly what they are saying now."
Edwards told Tapper that in that Feb. 9 briefing, "we spoke generally about the novel coronavirus" and that it was "not accurate to say that they gave the same sort of information that they are providing right now," since a lot more is now known about the virus.
Edwards’ deputy chief of staff, Christina Stephens, told PolitiFact that at that briefing, the virus was described as low risk and there was no suggestion that large gatherings be canceled.
In a Feb. 9 press release about the briefing, the U.S. Health and Human Services department said the task force "reiterated that while this is a serious public health matter, the risk to the American public remains low at this time, and that the federal government will continue working in close coordination with state and local governments to keep it that way."
Edwards said of the coronavirus threat, "there was not a single suggestion by anyone, a doctor, a scientist, a political figure, that we needed to cancel Mardi Gras."
New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations began early January and ended Feb. 25. PolitiFact reviewed public comments from Trump, federal and state health officials on and before Feb. 25 and did not find suggestions that large public events be cancelled. At that time, there was no report of community spread of the virus.
Edwards’ statement is accurate. We rate it True.
CNN Transcripts — State of Union, April 5, 2020
Phone and email interview, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deputy chief of staff, Christina Stephens, April 6, 2020
Email interview, Susan Hassig, expert on infectious disease outbreaks and associate professor at Tulane University, April 6, 2020
Email interview, Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an associate professor of epidemiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans, April 6, 2020
Louisiana state government website, Gov. Edwards Signs Proclamation Aimed to Slow the Spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, March 13, 2020
World Health Organization, WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19, March 11, 2020; Coronavirus disease 2019 Situation report - 36, Feb. 25, 2020
HHS.gov, Representatives of Coronavirus Task Force Brief Governors at NGA, Feb. 9, 2020; Secretary Azar Declares Public Health Emergency for United States for 2019 Novel Coronavirus, Jan. 31, 2020
CDC.gov, Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19, Feb. 29, 2020; Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19, Feb. 28, 2020; Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19, Feb. 26, 2020; Transcript of CDC Telebriefing for the Update on 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), Jan. 30, 2020
WhiteHouse.gov, Remarks by President Trump in Press Conference, Feb. 25, 2020; Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure, Feb. 23, 2020
King County government, First death due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in a resident of King County, Feb. 29, 2020
Nola.com, Four people in 3 states test positive for coronavirus after traveling to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, March 12, 2020
Twitter, @CNNSitRoom tweet, March 26, 2020
Wallethub.com, 2020 Mardi Gras Facts – Booze, Floats, Money & More, Feb. 18, 2020
USA Today, Top disease official: Risk of coronavirus in USA is 'minuscule'; skip mask and wash hands, Feb. 17, 2020, updated Feb. 19, 2020
The Washington Post, The U.S. was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged, April 4, 2020
The New York Times, New Orleans faces a virus nightmare, and Mardi Gras may be why, March 26, updated March 27, 2020
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