By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is issuing a mask mandate and closing bars in hopes of controlling the state’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections.
Starting Monday, bars will be closed again for indoor service, though curbside pickup will be allowed. Most state residents age eight or older will be required to wear masks when they enter a public indoor space and when they are outdoors and in close proximity to others. Indoor gatherings will be limited to 50 people.
The order will remain in effect until at least July 24, which is when the current executive order keeping the state in “phase two” of the White House-endorsed road map to loosening pandemic restrictions expires. Other phase two restrictions, such as limiting businesses to half their normal capacity, will not change.
“Our current restrictions are not enough,” Edwards said. “We know that face masks work.”
Bars have proven to be hot spots for spreading the illness since being allowed to reopen, the governor said, helping to drive case growth among young people who proceed to spread the virus to older residents who tend to be more vulnerable to serious complications.
“We cannot let this illness win,” Edwards said. Complying with the new mandates are “minor prices to pay” for being able to open schools and further open the economy, he added. Failing to control the case growth will threaten the state’s ability to provide health care and force officials to consider reimposing tighter restrictions, he said.
“We cannot risk losing our ability to deliver life-saving care,” he said, adding that some hospitals already are delaying elective procedures.
“Our hospitals are full,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.
State officials on Friday reported the biggest single-day count of new cases since the pandemic began, and more than 2,000 new cases were reported on both Friday and Saturday. Case count, the percentage of tests coming back positive, and hospitalizations all are on the rise.
During the early stages of the pandemic, Louisiana had the second-highest number of cases per capita in the nation. After imposing mitigation measures, the state fell to 10th, but since loosening those restrictions Louisiana is now third in cases per capita behind New York and New Jersey.
Edwards’ order requires almost everyone over the age of eight to wear a mask, though parishes and municipalities with low rates of COVID can opt out. Only three parishes currently qualify: Grant, Red River and West Feliciana.
There are a number of exceptions. The requirement does not apply to people with serious breathing problems and a mask can be taken off for several reasons, such as eating, giving a speech or for identification purposes.
Businesses will be required to ask people not wearing masks to leave, and people who refuse to do so will be considered to be trespassing, Edwards said. If someone says they have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, the business owner or employee does not have to ask for proof.
He said the mask mandate applies to houses of worship but will not be enforced in those places. Businesses that don’t comply could face fines. State practice so far with other COVID-related restrictions has been to warn offending business owners and give them time to get in compliance.
The mask mandate is likely to put the Democratic governor at odds with Republicans already bristling at the business restrictions meant to control the spread of the coronavirus and wary of government mandates in general.
Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish and Shreveport have issued local mandates.
Congressman Mike Johnson has challenged the legality of Shreveport’s mandate. Congressman Clay Higgins has questioned the science behind wearing face coverings, which public health experts now agree (after some early controversy) is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus.
Attorney General Jeff Landry has urged the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education not to require masks if and when students and teachers return to campus.
State Rep. Danny McCormick, an Oil City Republican, has posted a video likening mask mandates to “Nazi Germany” and saying if government can force you to wear a mask, they can force you to “stick a needle in your arm against your will, put a microchip in you,” or “take the mark.”
“Masks aren’t bad,” he said. “Mask mandates are.”
Some House Republicans have signed a petition to overturn the governor’s public health emergency declaration, citing the economic damage the restrictions on businesses have caused. Edwards has described the petition as a partisan stunt and says lifting the emergency declaration could lead to a loss of federal funds.