Gov. John Bel Edwards can heap on coronavirus restrictions, telling Louisiana residents not to gather in groups and to practice behavior that puts fewer people at risk of the COVID-19 disease. But he can’t be in every business, home and holiday party forcing people to follow those rules.
In fact, the Democratic governor said he doesn’t want strict enforcement, hoping that people will voluntarily comply with his coronavirus regulations. That leaves him to urge, cajole and plead with Louisiana residents in a sort of drumbeat marketing effort against pandemic fatigue.
He doesn’t seem to be winning the battle.
The number of Louisiana’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are again spiking — the third time since the pandemic began. Edwards tightened virus restrictions on businesses and gatherings shortly before Thanksgiving in hopes of curbing the surge.
But even the governor admits that if Louisiana residents had been following his looser Phase 3 rules, mask mandate and precautionary suggestions, he wouldn’t have reverted back to the Phase 2 guidelines to try to combat the latest swell in cases.
“Everybody should understand that this is a very, very serious situation and that we have to do our part to slow the spread. It’s got to be a collective effort,” Edwards said.
He’s running into a simple reality, however. Some people don’t think the virus is as dangerous as they’re told. Some people think only those most at risk should be forced to change their habits and lifestyles. And many people are just tired of COVID-19’s disruption of their lives.
Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, the second-ranking Republican in the state House of Representatives, said people ignoring the governor’s restrictions is “pretty widespread” now in his region.
“If you go to a grocery store or a restaurant, you don’t see a mask in sight anymore. There was a time not that long ago where you’d see everybody in a mask,” Magee said. “I think people have just kind of moved on with their life.”
Magee isn’t suggesting that’s a wise approach, but he said it’s hard to try to control human behavior for eight months.
“I think they’re tired of even thinking about it. And I think generally they think it affects a specific part of the population that they’re not in. The most common thing I hear is, ‘If you’re in that part of the population (most at risk), then you should stay home,’” Magee said. “That’s the most common feedback I get.”
Public health experts say that dismissiveness of precautions is fueling the latest surge of an outbreak that already has killed more than 6,000 people in Louisiana since March, according to the state health department.
Hospitals are cautioning the latest trajectory of cases, if it continues unabated, will overwhelm their facilities. Hospital leaders and doctors say that could damage their ability to provide care not only to COVID-19 patients, but also to people who have heart attacks, get injured in a car crash, need back surgery or seek preventive procedures.
While hospitals haven’t reached their maximum capacity yet, they are starting to see staffing shortages and delays in care, said Dr. Joe Kanter, the governor’s chief public health adviser. He said one hospital had to put patients in recliners while they waited for an available bed.
But while Kanter said the governor’s latest restrictions will be “significant in their effect,” he acknowledged the state needs help from the people who are choosing where to go, who to visit and how to spend their time.
“People really need to be making responsible decisions when no one’s looking,” Kanter said. “No one’s going to police your dinner parties.”
The Edwards administration’s enforcement of its restrictions has been somewhat lax all along, focused on coaxing businesses into compliance rather than punishing them and encouraging people to “be good neighbors.” The governor said he’s going to continue that approach.
He repeated a comment similar to one he’s made several times before: “If the people of Louisiana insist that we enforce our way through this, we’re doomed to failure. There are 4.65 million Louisianans. There are tens of thousands of businesses. And quite frankly, we can’t enforce our way through this.”
It’s uncertain if Edwards’ cajoling and urgent warnings — which helped slow the last two Louisiana virus surges — will work again until a vaccine is widely available.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.