By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana’s move Friday into the next phase of loosening COVID-19-related restrictions will include reopening the state library and highway welcome centers, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said Wednesday.
Nungesser, who is the state’s top tourism official, also struck an optimistic tone about the number of visitors Louisiana will be welcoming as concerns about the pandemic ease.
Surveys show in the near term most travelers plan to stay close to home, Nungesser said, so he is urging Louisiana residents to consider road trips within the state. He said more than 20,000 people visited state parks over the past two weekends, the most since 2008, which should take some of the sting out of a $3.2 million revenue loss during the pandemic.
“Incredible numbers, and everybody did it in a safe manner,” he said.
Looking toward later in the year and next year, he said tourism officials are “leaning forward” to land conventions and conferences. He said Lake Charles recently was able to attract a trucking conference that had been planned for Miami. A “Louisiana lagniappe” plan including Louisiana seafood and live music is being offered as an enticement.
The welcome centers have been closed, except for the restrooms, since March 16. Once re-opened, no more than 10 visitors at a time will be allowed in the lobby areas. Each center will distribute free “Feed Your Soul”-branded masks, which tie into the state’s tourism marketing campaign.
Nungesser joined Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 news briefing Wednesday. As of noon Wednesday, at least 2,759 Louisiana residents had been killed by the disease, state health officials reported.
Officials said 619 COVID-19 patients were in hospitals, the lowest total since late March. More than 41,000 cases had been reported, and officials believed almost 32,000 patients had recovered.
Like many states around the country, Louisiana has seen protest marches inspired in part by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The protests have been “almost without exception” peaceful, Edwards said.
Asked earlier in the day if the gatherings might lead to more coronavirus infections, Dr. Alex Billioux with the state Office of Public Health said they might, adding that officials had similar concerns about the recent Memorial Day holiday.
Billioux once again reassured lawmakers that participation in the state’s contact tracing program is voluntary, though he stressed that participation is extremely important for efforts to contain possible outbreaks. Rep. Raymond Crews, a Bossier City Republican, asked him to put more emphasis on the voluntary nature of the program in the state’s messaging about it.
Edwards said state officials have discussed ways to pay for a program to help residents facing eviction because of financial hardships tied to the pandemic and response, though he didn’t offer any details.