By David Jacobs, The Center Square
Louisiana this weekend will move into “phase three” of the White House-approved restrictions meant to control the spread of COVID-19, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday.
The current executive order expires Friday. Edwards said officials haven’t hammered out the details of what will be included in the new order, so business owners remain in the dark about the rules they will be expected to follow for the foreseeable future.
The governor did say the state’s mask mandate will remain in place. Beyond that detail, it is unclear what “phase three” will look like in Louisiana.
Under the state’s current restrictions, crowd sizes are limited, barrooms are closed for on-premise service, other types of businesses are restricted to half of their usual capacity, and everyone is expected to wear a mask covering their face and nose when they are near people who are not part of their household.
“This is probably the hardest decision that I’ve made so far [to combat the pandemic],” Edwards said.
The federal government’s criteria for deciding when states are ready to loosen COVID-19 mitigation restrictions include case growth, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals, the number of patients reporting COVID-19-like symptoms, testing capacity, and the percentage of tests coming back positive.
State officials on Thursday reported 21 deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 4,991, along with 499 new cases on 10,557 new tests. There were 762 hospitalized patients, down 20 from Wednesday.
Louisiana’s current trends are encouraging, Edwards said. The problem is that the impact of recent events – such as Labor Day gatherings, schools reopening, and the evacuation of thousands of southwest Louisiana residents – is not entirely clear. It takes about two weeks for a change in public behavior to be reflected in the data.
But despite his misgivings, the governor said he wanted to continue to adhere closely to the federal guidelines, which he said indicate the state is ready to move forward.
Edwards warned that COVID-19 remains a threat and that people who are at high risk of serious complications in particular should be cautious. Residents still are advised to stay home when possible, avoid crowds, wash their hands frequently, and to wear a mask when interacting with people who are not part of their households.
“We’re still No. 1 in the country in cases per capita,” he said.
Edwards’ announcement comes as political pressure mounts to relax or eliminate the COVID-19 mitigation restrictions, though legal challenges to the governor’s authority to impose the rules to combat the public health emergency have failed.
“It’s time for our state to move to phase three,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said last week during a legislative meeting about resuming high school sports.
In a statement issued Thursday, Schexnayder said he was “encouraged” by the governor’s decision and was “anxiously awaiting” the details.
“It’s time to move out of the temporary abnormal and back to [normal] life,” he said.
The state Republican party has called for allowing parish governments to set their own rules where infection rates are decreasing and local hospitals have sufficient treatment capacity. Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes have requested have asked for that authority.
“Every parish is experiencing this pandemic in different ways,” state GOP Chairman Louis Gurvich said. “We must trust our local leaders with the flexibility to do what is best for their parishes citizens and businesses.”
Not knowing what the next set of rules will be when the current guidelines are about to expire is “frustrating to say the least,” said Dawn Starns, who directs the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. Small-business owners have to wait until tomorrow to see what the new, presumably relaxed restrictions will be, then decide how they will respond.
“It would have been nice to get a jump start on the planning,” she said.
Starns said the mask mandate has not been a major problem for business owners after an initial adjustment period, adding that the statewide mandate replacing mandates that only existed in certain parishes has made the transition easier. The barroom closures and capacity restrictions, on the other hand, have created serious hardships.
“We need a strong fourth quarter,” she said.
The Pelican Institute CEO Daniel Erspamer said Louisiana has multiple issues it must address.
“We’re currently facing two serious crises that must be addressed with equal effort and urgency – the health threat posed by COVID-19 and the destruction of livelihoods shutdown mandates leave in their wake,” Erspamer said in a statement. “From there, of course, many tasks remain. Among them are policy changes necessary to provide proper checks and balances to Louisiana state government and to ensure every citizen’s rights and liberties are protected the next time we face a public health crisis.”