October 24, 2020

Louisiana ratchets up restrictions: mandatory masks, bars close as COVID worsens

Gov. John Edwards on Saturday ratcheted up Louisiana’s restrictions to combat the coronavirus’s spread, saying he’s instituting a statewide mask mandate, putting tougher limits on group gatherings and shuttering bars.

The tightened requirements will take effect Monday, the Democratic governor said. The order is aimed at trying to curb a sharp rise in infections of COVID-19 that is sparking troubling surges in hospitalization rates.

Masks will be required when entering establishments statewide, though some parishes can opt out if they meet certain thresholds for the virus. Those parishes are Grant, Red River and West Feliciana, Edwards said.

Bars will be closed to in-person consumption, regardless of whether they serve food. They will still be allowed to offer curbside pick up. He also banned gatherings above 50 people, except at churches. That’s down from a 250-person limit currently in effect.

“It’s become clear to me especially after the numbers we saw yesterday that our current restrictions are not enough,” Edwards said at a news conference. “Closing bars are not a step I wanted to take, but bars have proven to be a hotspot for the spread of the coronavirus.”

The decision comes after coronavirus data has worsened across the state. Louisiana posted more than 2,000 new cases Friday and Saturday, and the share of tests coming back positive has risen along with hospitalizations.

Louisiana in recent weeks has seen some of the worst spikes in COVID-19 infections since the early days of the state’s outbreak, when it was one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus. Edwards’ stricter rules will take effect the day before Vice President Mike Pence’s planned Tuesday visit to Louisiana to discuss virus response.

On Friday, the state reported a near-record increase in confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,642 positive tests — the second-highest daily increase on record since Louisiana saw its first positive test in March and the highest daily spike since early April. Another 2,167 confirmed cases were announced Saturday.

“This virus touches every corner of the state,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, director of the state health department region that includes New Orleans. “We have to turn this around.”

“We can get back on top of this and start driving cases down again,” Edward said. “We all have a role to play. Simply be a good neighbor. … Wear a mask, physically distance, stay home when sick and wash your hands. If you’re out and about, don’t patronize a business that’s not operating safely. We know then that the business will comply. We know that this won’t be easy and it won’t be quick; but it will be easier if more people comply.”

But unlike months ago, when the surge in cases centered on the New Orleans area, public health officials have warned they are seeing upticks in nearly every region of the state.

“At the end of the day, while I know it will be unpopular and controversial to some, we know that face masks work,” Edwards said. “They help limit the distance that particles will be spread. None of these steps are steps I wanted to take. None are easy. But I think they’re essential.”

The sizable boost in cases can’t be explained solely by increased testing, because the percentage of tests coming back positive is growing — and the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized is increasing as well, reaching 1,182 people. The state isn’t near the height of its virus hospitalization rates, but Edwards has worried the trends could threaten overwhelming health care facilities if they continue their current trajectory.

For months, Edwards has required employees interacting with the public to wear masks, but he’d resisted enacting a statewide mask mandate for customers, saying he preferred to let municipalities make their own decisions. Several cities, including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, already have issued requirements that people wear face coverings inside businesses — though Shreveport’s mandate was put on hold by a judge.

Until Saturday’s announcement, Edwards had tried to appeal to Louisiana residents’ personal responsibility, calling on them to be “good neighbors.”

Beyond the new regulations, the governor is keeping other existing rules in place. That Phase 2 guidance allows churches, restaurants, coffee shops, gyms, hair and nail salons, museums, casinos and other businesses to operate at 50% occupancy. Live music and theater venues remain closed.

Louisiana has nearly 77,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Public health experts say the actual infection rate is expected to be much higher because many people do not experience significant symptoms and others never get tested. The state health department says at least 3,295 people have died from COVID-19.

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.