Louisiana governor and legislators look toward economic recovery from COVID-19 slowdown

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The White House on Thursday released a three-stage blueprint for states and regions to relax some of their anti-COVID-19 business restrictions and reopen more of their economies.

On Friday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said he thinks the state may be able to shift into stage one by the time his current “stay at home” order expires April 30, but he doesn’t know for sure yet whether his state will meet the federal criteria.

“We don’t meet the threshold requirements, although we’re moving in that direction,” Edwards said. “I think that by the time we get to May the first, we will be in that situation. It really depends on what people do between now and then.”

The White House guidelines include several preconditions that states should meet before beginning to reopen. Among those are a downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period, or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests within 14 days while the amount of tests being conducted increases or stays the same.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all plan because not every state was similarly impacted,” Edwards said, adding that Louisiana has the third-highest infection rate in the nation relative to its population.

Under phase one, people who are at high risk of serious COVID-19 complications, such as the elderly and people with certain chronic health conditions, should continue to stay home. Healthy people still should maintain physical distance from other people as much as possible, avoid socializing in groups larger than 10, and minimize non-essential travel.

Employers should close common areas or enforce strict social distancing and continue to encourage telework. Schools and bars would remain closed, but gyms and large venues could reopen while also enforcing social distancing, and elective surgeries would resume.

Though the White House guidelines are more detailed, they are not inconsistent with Edwards’ statements about reopening currently limited sectors of the economy in phases. Permitting the health care industry to perform elective procedures again is likely to be one of the first steps, Edwards says.

Edwards on Thursday established a commission to help state officials decide when and how to increase economic activity and improve resiliency while protecting public safety. On Friday, state Senate President Page Cortez and state House of Representatives Speaker Clay Schexnayder announced the creation of the Louisiana Legislative Advisory Task Force on Economic Recovery, charged with “developing comprehensive policy, legislative, and regulatory recommendations to immediately re-start the Louisiana economy and to invest in the long-term recovery of households, workers, and businesses from the COVID-19 crisis.”

“The people of our state have come together to fight an unprecedented public health crisis,” Cortez said. “It’s now time to come together to fight a historic economic crisis.”

Along with Cortez and Schexnayder, the new task force consists of four other legislative leaders and a long list of prominent businesspeople from throughout the state. Tax attorney Jason DeCuir is the chairman, and the first meeting will be held virtually before the end of April with public online viewing capability, legislators said.

At least two state elected officials, Rep. Mark Wright and Rep. Danny McCormick – both Republicans – have called for lifting most or all restrictions when the governor’s current order expires April 30, citing the economic damage. The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank headquartered in New Orleans, issued a statement Friday calling for the state to move into phase one of the White House plan on May 1, calling the guidelines “a responsible road map for getting Louisiana working.”

“More than 350,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Louisiana in the last month, and these numbers will only worsen the longer our small businesses stay closed and our citizens remain out of work,” Pelican CEO Daniel Erspamer said.

Erspamer’s statement does not say anything about meeting the White House’s criteria first. Pelican spokesman Morgan Wampold said Louisiana should move forward May 1 “barring any significant changes in the data.”

As of noon Friday, at least 1,213 Louisiana residents had died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to the state health deparment.

While the number of confirmed cases was up, the number of people hospitalized and on ventilators was down to 1,868 and 363 respectively. No region of the state is on pace to exceed its health care capacity over the next two weeks, officials say.