Louisiana has largest daily spike in virus cases since April

Louisiana has recorded its largest daily coronavirus case spike since April, and the mayor of Baton Rouge announced Wednesday that she is requiring people to wear masks inside businesses in hopes of stemming the worrisome spread of the disease.

Nearly 2,100 new cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus were confirmed over the past day in Louisiana residents, and hospitalizations continued to tick upward. The state is regularly lodging around 1,000 new positive cases each day, numbers that are starting to look like early April — before the impacts of a statewide stay-at-home order drove down new infections.

The trend is worrying public health experts that Louisiana’s once successful efforts to slow infections are being undermined by a complacent public ignoring recommended precautions.

“This disease is coming back, and it’s coming back with a vengeance, and we better start getting serious,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer.

Louisiana’s health department said the increases aren’t all tied to more testing and aren’t in group settings, such as nursing homes. Nearly all the cases reported Wednesday, the health department said, are tied to community spread.

In Louisiana’s capital city, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome signed an executive order that requires people to wear face coverings when they are inside a business, beginning Friday. Gov. John Bel Edwards already mandates that workers who deal with the public in any business statewide must wear a mask; Broome’s order will apply to patrons.

“My message is simple. Save a life, save our economy and wear a face covering,” Broome said at a news conference with Edwards.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell already has issued a mask requirement for nearly all activities in her city, and the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson Parish on Wednesday began enforcing a mandate for masks inside businesses and public places.

Edwards remains resistant to enacting a statewide order requiring the face coverings. He said the White House’s coronavirus task force has suggested making those decisions at a municipal level, depending on the intensity of the local outbreak.

He said he’s not sure a statewide mandate would “produce the level of compliance we need.” He’s called on personal responsibility in encouraging masks instead — and said he supports those parish leaders who have enacted face covering mandates.

Broome said her decision came as Baton Rouge saw the largest single day increase in new coronavirus cases in the last six weeks and the third-largest since Louisiana’s outbreak began in mid-March. Several bars near Louisiana State University have reported localized outbreaks.

“I understand the concern of our community. Wearing a mask can be unpleasant,” the Democratic mayor posted on Twitter. “When we look at our stakes, our inconvenience is trivial in comparison to what is at risk, and the loss we have faced in our community thus far. These small sacrifices will allow us to move forward.”

Businesses could face misdemeanor fines for not enforcing the mask requirements. Gyms and churches are exempt from the mandate, along with people who are eating and drinking.

Edwards, meanwhile, said the state is stepping up enforcement of its existing restrictions on businesses — but he decided against adding more limitations, for now. He cautioned people against large gatherings for the Fourth of July, saying the latest case spike began around Memorial Day.

More than 3,100 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state health department. Edwards said his largest concern is the consistent uptick in patients who are hospitalized, after efforts to keep those cases from overwhelming health care facilities.

“We’ve totally given up all the gains we made in June with respect to hospitalizations,” the Democratic governor said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.

Louisiana has more than 60,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Public health experts say the actual infection rate is expected to be much higher because many people don’t experience significant symptoms and others never get tested.

Nearly half of Louisiana’s new COVID-19 cases announced Wednesday involved people under the age of 30, according to the health department. While they are at less risk of serious symptoms themselves, they could spread the disease to older people or others with existing health problems.