Louisiana: Stay-at-Home Until May 15, Then Some Reopening

Virus Outbreak Louisiana
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he is extending Louisiana’s stay-at-home order through May 15, saying some regions of the state haven’t shown enough progress in fighting the coronavirus outbreak to lessen widespread restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

But if the state’s rate of infections continues to decrease, the Democratic governor said he expects his constraints will begin to loosen on May 16, with churches and more retailers allowed to open statewide at that time, including hair and nail salons and some restaurant dine-in services — all at only 25% of their legal occupancy rates.

Until mid-May, however, Edwards’ current March 23 order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery and closing casinos, gyms, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and salons will largely remain in place.

Edwards said he made the decision in consultation with infectious disease specialists and other public health experts, as Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation for confirmed virus cases per capita. He said he told Vice President Mike Pence about the extension of the stay-home order and Pence supported the decision.

“If we move too quickly that wouldn’t be good for public health or for our economy” because that could cause new spikes in virus cases, and the state would have to “slam on the brakes,” Edwards said.

A few modest changes will start Friday. Restaurants will be allowed to seat people outside, though without waiter service at the tables. Mall stores will be allowed to do curbside retail. And all people who interact with the public at work will have to wear masks.

Edwards had cautioned he would use a “very gradual effort” to loosen restrictions enacted to stem the virus outbreak.

His first small step began Monday when “time-sensitive” elective medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, biopsies and dental procedures, were allowed to restart. The allowance is for procedures that need to be done to keep conditions from getting worse and putting a person’s health more at risk. Clinics that resume the procedures have to adhere to distancing guidelines and have a five-day supply of masks, gowns and other protective equipment.

The governor has tried to manage expectations about what comes next, suggesting his plans for May wouldn’t be a return to a pre-virus normal with restaurants and bars jammed with people and stores filled to capacity. He’s acted more cautiously than some other Southern governors.

Edwards has so far rejected calls from some Republican officials to allow a parish-by-parish approach to reopening. And he has been cool to the idea of a regional approach, although he has said local officials can enact stronger rules than the state’s. In New Orleans, where more than 400 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s emergency order, which shuts down nonessential businesses and bans public gatherings, doesn’t expire until May 16.

Louisiana became one of the United States’ hot spots for virus outbreaks in March, but has seen encouraging signs in combating the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. The rates of new infections and hospitalizations have slowed, and fewer patients are on ventilators. But Louisiana has a higher at-risk population, making decisions about how to relax restrictions trickier.

Louisiana’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 1,697 on Monday, and more than 27,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, according to the state health department. More than 17,000 people are presumed recovered, the department says.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

Edwards said his decision on how to loosen virus-related restrictions hinge on access to widespread testing and to “contact tracers” who can pinpoint people who encountered those who test positive, are at greater risk of infection and should be isolated. The White House’s guidance for a phased approach to reopening stresses the need for both.

While Louisiana’s testing rates is one of the nation’s highest per capita, it still hasn’t reached the 200,000 tests per month level Edwards is seeking. The state’s team of contact tracers also remains far below the level state officials believe they need to adequately lessen the risks of new spikes in virus cases.

 

By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte

 

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