Edwards Keeps Louisiana Mask Rule, Ditches Many Virus Limits
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana will end many of its coronavirus restrictions for businesses, but will keep its statewide mask mandate in place even as several states have shed face covering requirements, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday.
Customer limits on bars, restaurants, salons, gyms, malls, casinos and other nonessential businesses will be removed, though they’ll be required to use social distancing. They had previously been capped at 50% or 75% of their occupancy limits. Direct table service still will be required at bars, but an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew will end.
The changes represent the fewest restrictions for businesses since the pandemic began. The new rules start Wednesday, though local officials could choose to enact tougher limits than those put in place by the Democratic governor.
“Today marks a big step forward, but we’re all going to have a role to play,” Edwards said. He urged people to continue to “mask, vaccinate and distance.”
But the lightened limits diverge from some of the recommendations of President Joe Biden’s administration, which has urged restrictions to be maintained or tightened to avoid another surge of the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus. Administration officials have suggested state leaders are loosening their rules too quickly, when vaccination efforts haven’t reached the levels needed to contain the virus’ spread.
The president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry thanked Edwards for his decision. On Twitter, Stephen Waguespack called the new rules “great news for businesses of all sizes and the communities that depend on the jobs and investment they provide.”
Under Edwards’ new rules, which will last four weeks, sporting events will remain limited to 50% of their crowd capacity. Event spaces, reception halls and those that host large gatherings also will be capped at half their occupancy limit both indoors and outdoors, with no more than 500 people allowed inside. Religious services will continue to have no rules on crowd size, but social distancing will still be required. Rules will be eased slightly for live music, though with tougher requirements maintained than for other types of events.
But Edwards said he won’t loosen the rules for face coverings, which have been in place since July, arguing that’s one of the most effective ways to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
The governor’s decision comes as more people around Louisiana have received the coronavirus vaccine and as supplies of the shots continue to increase. The governor opened vaccine eligibility Monday to anyone age 16 and older, a move that several states are making this week.
Nearly 1.2 million people in Louisiana — 26% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. More than 720,000 people have been fully immunized, about 16%.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one.
Still, Louisiana continues to lag behind many other states in vaccine distribution. The state ranked 41st among states Tuesday in the number of vaccine doses administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the vaccination efforts, which initially focused on health care workers and the elderly, have made an impact.
Since January, the state has seen sharp drops in confirmed cases of COVID-19 and people hospitalized with the disease. Hospitalizations stood at 363 patients Tuesday after topping 2,000 daily in January.
Louisiana’s daily average of new cases of COVID-19 continues to fall, declining more than 13% over the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The percentage of tests returning positive for the disease has dropped to below 3% statewide, after reaching more than 13% at one point in early January.
But southwest Louisiana, which was ravaged by two hurricanes in 2020, continues to see higher coronavirus case loads than most of the state, a problem that Edwards called concerning.
By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte