By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana is not ready to further loosen the restrictions placed on businesses meant to control the spread of COVID-19, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday.
The decision comes amid a recent increase of cases that cannot be explained by an increase in the number of tests. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals also has been rising, and on Monday, the state reported its largest increase of hospitalizations since April.
The rising number of patients in hospitals, which was 630 at last count, is particularly troubling, though there are still enough hospital beds in every region to treat the patients that are coming in, officials said.
“It is a trend in the wrong direction,” Edwards said.
Louisiana has recorded more than 3,000 deaths from COVID-19 and over 50,000 total cases since the pandemic began. Officials believe almost 40,000 COVID-19 patients have recovered.
Louisiana since June 5 has been in “phase two” of the federal government’s road map to lifting restrictions and will remain at that level of restriction for another month. Under phase two, businesses and organizations in Louisiana have been limited to 50 percent of their normal capacity, while bars that don’t serve food are supposed to restrict themselves to 25 percent of capacity.
Workers who deal with the public are expected to wear masks and ensure customers can maintain distance between themselves and other patrons. People who are considered to be particularly vulnerable to serious complications caused by COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions are asked to stay home if possible, and everyone is asked to limit the number of trips they make outside the home.
“We are disappointed that the state is not yet moving to phase 3 of our recovery and hope that we can get back on track as soon as possible,” Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack said. “Since this pandemic started, the vast majority of Louisiana’s businesses have worked hard to follow health guidelines, but driving businesses and individuals into increasingly harmful economic conditions is a significant threat to everyone.”
As in other states, the number of Louisianans filing for unemployment benefits has soared over the past three months because of coronavirus restrictions.
More than 23,122 new claims were filed in the state in the week ending June 13, and existing unemployment claims climbed to more than 306,358, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The federal government suggests several factors for officials to consider when deciding whether their state is ready to let businesses operate more freely while still protecting public health. Those include decreasing reports of COVID-like illness, decreasing new case counts, decreases in the percentage of tests administered that come back positive, and decreasing hospitalizations.
Louisiana does not meet the federal guidelines for moving into the next phase of fully reopening its economy, Edwards said. He warned on Thursday that many residents were not practicing the mitigation measures such as wearing masks and maintaining distance from people who are not part of your household.
Cases are rising fastest among young adults age 18 to 29, officials said. Some outbreaks have been traced to bars and graduation parties. While most young people are not at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications, 13 Louisiana residents younger than 29 years old have died from the illness, officials say, and young people still can spread the virus to others without knowing they’re sick.
Louisiana ranks seventh out of 23 states experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases, including Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, Edwards said. The rising case counts in warm-weather states seems to have disproven the theory that summer heat and humidity suppresses the virus, he noted.
“We do have a new normal, whether we like it or not,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of people out there who are saying they’re done with this virus. Well, the virus isn’t done with us.”
Though the state fire marshal’s office doesn’t usually investigate businesses unless they get a tip, Edwards said officials will begin making more visits to make sure companies are following the rules. Those that aren’t will be advised on how to bring themselves into compliance, and those that still aren’t complying will risk consequences that might include suspension of their ability to remain open.
Edwards said state government hasn’t shut down any business yet, though a few have shut their doors voluntarily because of health concerns.
Wendy Waren, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said she was not surprised by Edwards’ decision given the rise in case numbers, hospitalizations and other factors. She said state officials have been willing to work with restaurants and said managers and owners have tried to encourage patrons to follow the guidelines.
“If we can get the public on board to take this seriously and not let their guard down, I think in the next four weeks we can put some things into practice that get us really ready for phase three,” she said. “I think people have gotten too comfortable.”
Business groups respond to Edwards plan
“Every day we delay getting more people back to work and getting the economy re-opened means another day that tens of thousands of Louisiana entrepreneurs, workers, and families will continue to suffer and fall deeper into a financial hole. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer to get Louisiana working, and we join many across the state who are deeply disappointed in the Governor’s announcement of an additional four weeks of the current economic restrictions.” — Daniel Erspamer, chief executive officer of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy (Pelican Institute)
“We are disappointed that the state is not yet moving to Phase 3 of our recovery and hope that we can get back on track as soon as possible. Since this pandemic started, the vast majority of Louisiana’s businesses have worked hard to follow health guidelines, but driving businesses and individuals into increasingly harmful economic conditions is a significant threat to everyone. We stand ready to work with any elected official at any level to help get Louisiana back to work again.” — LABI President and CEO Stephen Waguespack