(The Center Square) – Louisiana will leave in place for two additional weeks business restrictions meant to control the spread of COVID-19, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.
The state will remain in “phase two” of the White House-approved road map for loosening restrictions meant to control the pandemic. The current executive order was scheduled to expire Friday.
The announcement comes as hospitalizations continue to rise, which is the metric state officials find most concerning. Louisiana is second in the nation in cases per capita behind New York and is “extremely close” to being first, Edwards said.
“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of COVID and a tremendous spread of COVID across the state,” said Dr. Alex Billioux with the state Office of Public Health. “We’ve now clearly turned a corner in the wrong direction.”
The Democratic governor’s restrictions have become increasingly controversial in recent weeks. Many of the Republican members of the state House of Representatives as well as business groups have called for lifting Edwards’ state of emergency, citing the economic damage.
“We’re obviously disappointed to remain in Phase II for at least two more weeks, and we are just as concerned with the lack of a clearly articulated and creative pathway to a safe, reopened society, school system and economy,” Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President and CEO Stephen Waguespack said in a prepared statement. “Our businesses stand ready to work with anyone, wear any mask, follow any distancing guidelines, take any test and adopt any protocol it takes to get us on a clearly defined path to prioritize open schools, public health AND economic stability.”
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, who supported Edwards’ initial “stay at home” order issued in March, has said the governor’s most recent order re-closing bars, requiring masks and limiting crowd sizes to 50 or fewer is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Three Jefferson Parish business owners have filed a lawsuit to overturn the order.
Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder opposes overriding the emergency declaration, saying it could lead to losing federal funds. Hospital officials also have urged lawmakers to leave the order in place.
At least 3,498 Louisiana residents with COVID-19 have died, according to the state health department; 36 new deaths were reported Tuesday.
State officials reported 1,737 new cases Tuesday, bringing the total to 96,583 cases since the pandemic began. There were 1,527 patients in hospitals, an increase of 19 compared to Monday’s total. Officials believe 53,288 COVID patients have recovered.
Hospital leaders across the state say their capacity is strained, and some are starting to have difficulty admitting new patients, Billioux said. The trend is partly driven by an increase in COVID patients and partly by patients who previously had delayed other medical procedures because of the pandemic, he said.
Louisiana was a national leader in COVID cases per capita during the early days of the pandemic, driven mainly by a high concentration of cases in the New Orleans region. Mitigation measures helped to flatten the infection curve, but since loosening restrictions the illness has had a resurgence.
Edwards said he didn’t expect to reimpose stricter guidelines and return to “phase one” or “phase zero.” Officials will have a better idea in two weeks if closing bars again and mandating face coverings are working.
He said he believes the state is in a better position to respond than it was in the spring, thanks in part to the recent experience of the state’s health care workers and the availability of new treatment options such as the drug remdesivir. The governor plans to ask the federal government for help with health care staffing, he said.
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans is set up with 250 hospital beds and enough staff to serve 60 patients, and a contract in place to increase staffing if needed, Edwards said. “More than 20” patients are there now at the facility that is designed for patients who no longer need to be in an acute care bed but aren’t yet well enough to go home, he added.
Asked about schools, Edwards and Billioux did not say definitively that they were or were not recommending reopening for in-person learning. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has created guidelines for schools based on which phase the state is in when the school year begins early next month, though individual districts are making the final decisions about how to proceed.