Edwards forms COVID-19 commission, hoping to balance public health and economic recovery amid COVID-19

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has created a task force to help state officials decide when and how to reopen sectors of the economy currently limited or shut down by efforts to control COVID-19, the governor announced Thursday.

Though his “stay at home” order expires April 30, Edwards plans to extend at least some of the restrictions now in place, though some modifications are possible. The goal is to open up more of the economy while still protecting public health as much as possible, he said.

“COVID-19 represents a historic challenge to our ability to respond medically and save lives, but it also represents a tremendous challenge for Louisiana’s economy and the prosperity of each one of our residents,” Edwards said. “For these reasons, we need a comprehensive game plan for creating a more resilient Louisiana.”

Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson and Terrie Sterling, a Baton Rouge consultant and retired Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System executive, will co-chair the Resilient Louisiana Commission. The commission includes Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is the state’s top tourism official, state Sen. Ronnie Johns and state Rep. Paula Davis, who chair the Senate and House commerce committees, along with other government officials and business and labor representatives.

“We have responded to many past disasters in Louisiana with a substantial degree of success,” Pierson said. “However, we all recognize that COVID-19 brings a unique and different kind of threat, and we will work as a team to create the very best practices for moving forward today and for building resiliency tomorrow.”

Edwards has said the state’s health care sector may be the first to see looser restrictions. While elective procedures currently are on hold, many can only be delayed so long without endangering the patient’s health, he said. Plus, health care is one of the state’s largest industries.

Edwards did not announce any planned changes to his mitigation orders. But in discussing hypothetical options that might be considered, he said patients awaiting care might be asked to wait in their cars rather than in a waiting room, and that restaurants might be allowed to reopen their dining rooms but be required to keep their tables farther apart to promote social distancing.

He said he expected to receive further guidance from federal officials later in the day, adding that more extensive testing and tracing of people who have been in contact with others who have the coronavirus are important when it comes to fully reopening the economy.

The governor’s announcement follows news that the federal government’s $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, meant to help small businesses survive the pandemic and its response, has run out of money. More than 17,000 Louisiana businesses have benefited from the program, officials say.

“America’s small businesses are on the brink, trying desperately to keep their doors open and support their employees,” said Brad Close, president of the National Federation of Independent Business. “They have been let down by lawmakers and the bureaucracy with the smallest businesses most disadvantaged in attempting to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, said he hopes Congress allocates an additional $250 billion to the PPP, which he said has been “the most successful and the most effective” of the federal relief and stimulus legislation. He said Louisiana should not “take our foot off the gas” when it comes to mitigation efforts to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We’re not talking about picking a choice between safety and economic recovery,” he said. “You can do both, and we have to do both.”