New Orleans won’t follow state in easing virus restrictions

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans will not follow the rest of Louisiana in easing up on public gathering restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Thursday.

Cantrell staked out her position hours after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state will ease restrictions starting Friday, moving from “Phase Two” to “Phase Three” regulations when a current emergency proclamation expires. However, Edwards gave no details on what the new phase will look like, saying he would provide more information at a news conference Friday.

New Orleans’ coronavirus-related restrictions consistently have been somewhat tougher than the state’s. The city was the epicenter of a spring outbreak of COVID-19 that made Louisiana one of the nation’s hot spots. The resulting shutdowns, including an off-again-on-again closure of bars, have damaged the city’s tourism-dependent economy. Bars that don’t serve food remain closed in the city under current guidelines.

Cantrell spoke Thursday at a New Orleans Public School System news conference on plans to begin returning students to classrooms starting Monday. Safely getting children into classrooms is the city’s top priority for now, Cantrell said.

“The primary reason for us staying in Phase Two, not moving with further easement of any restrictions, is to get our kids back into the classroom, have the time that will allow us to look at the data, look at the trends, and therefor determine the impact,” Cantrell said.

And she said the city is looking at ways to clamp down on businesses — in the bar-heavy French Quarter and other areas — that don’t adhere to closure rules.

The decision to start returning New Orleans children to classrooms, beginning with students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade next week, was made when daily new cases had dropped below 50 in the city, and with the percentage of positive cases below 5%. City health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno noted a rise in the number of new cases in recent days, sometimes surpassing 100.

“That rise seems to be largely tied to the high volume of testing of asymptomatic college students returning to the city,” Avegno said. She added that the number of new cases was below 50 again Thursday and the percentage of positive tests has been consistently below 5%.

Meanwhile, the rest of Louisiana awaited word on just how far Edwards would go to ease restrictions.

Edwards would not answer questions on what Phase Three of the restrictions would look like during his live-streamed news conference Thursday in Baton Rouge, except to say a statewide mask mandate would remain in place.

Edwards’ announcement comes as the rate of new cases, the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations have declined statewide.

“This was probably the hardest decision that I’ve made thus far,” Edwards said, referring to the six months since the disease first appeared in Louisiana.

Louisiana’s health department reported 499 new confirmed cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total during the pandemic to 155,419, with more than 140,000 recovered. The number of deaths related to the disease rose by 21 to 4,991 and hospitalizations dropped to 762, the lowest that number has been since late June.

Current state regulations, set to expire Friday, limit restaurants to 50% capacity for in-person dining, restrict bars to takeout and delivery only and place occupancy limits on gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Face coverings are required for anyone age 8 and older, with medical exceptions. Indoor gatherings above 50 people are banned.

White House guidelines for Phase Three openings include allowing bars to operate with “increased standing room occupancy.” But states are free to adopt their own regulations and it was unclear if Edwards would lift the closure order on bars in the state — a closure being fought in federal court by groups of bar owners in southeast and southwest Louisiana.

Edwards also acknowledged Thursday that Dr. Alex Billioux, an assistant secretary in the health department who has had a high profile in the state’s coronavirus response, is leaving his job for personal reasons.

“I wanted to personally and publicly thank him for his tremendous work here over the last two years, but principally over the last six months,” Edwards said of Billioux, who has often participated in Edwards’ news conferences on the virus.