Louisiana ends mask mandates, except for some schools; LSU says it will keep masks through semester end

Published 9:22 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he’s largely ending Louisiana’s nearly three-month-old indoor mask mandate since the state has emerged from its latest coronavirus spike and is seeing lower rates of COVID-19 infection.

“I stand here today optimistic, relieved that the worst of the fourth surge is very clearly behind us now,” Edwards said.

But while the Democratic governor is lifting the mask requirement for grocery stores, restaurants, bars, retailers, colleges and other sites, he’s keeping a complicated set of face-covering rules in place for Louisiana’s K-12 schools.

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School districts that maintain tight quarantine regulations for students who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 won’t be required to have a mask mandate. But those districts that don’t require all exposed students to be sent home will have to keep students and staff masked up, under Edwards’ new regulations taking effect Wednesday.

The Edwards administration said stricter requirements should remain in place at schools because children have greater exposure risks, with students under 12 unable to yet get vaccinated against the coronavirus and sitting in crowded classrooms for hours.

The split decision for schools highlights Edwards’ displeasure with Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s loosening of quarantine guidance for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students.

Brumley is no longer suggesting schools send home asymptomatic students who have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, as is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, Brumley suggests parents could choose whether to send their children to school if they don’t have symptoms, arguing too many students have missed days of school because of quarantines.

Edwards and public health officials disagreed with Brumley’s decision. Many of Louisiana’s school systems have refused to change their quarantine rules despite the superintendent’s new guidance, saying they’ll stick with the advice of medical experts.

Brumley called Edwards’ changed mask rules “a step in the right direction of getting students back to normalcy.” But the superintendent added in his statement that ”local school systems should be fully entrusted with the ability to implement quarantine procedures meeting the needs of their communities.”

Though Edwards decided to lift most of the face-covering mandate across Louisiana, masks will be required at airports, on planes, on public transportation and in medical facilities because of federal rules. Individual businesses also can enact their own mask requirements if they choose.

Louisiana State University announced it will keep its indoor mask mandate in place through the end of the semester. New Orleans also won’t necessarily follow the governor’s lead, with a city spokesperson saying Mayor LaToya Cantrell wants to look closely at the data before making any decisions about easing the city’s masking requirements.

Edwards said he’d consider returning to the face-covering requirement if Louisiana sees another surge in the coronavirus illness: “I hope we won’t need it, but I won’t hesitate to do it.”

In August, Edwards reinstated Louisiana’s now-expiring mask mandate for all public indoor locations as the state faced its worst surge of the coronavirus illness and had the highest per capita COVID-19 infection growth in the nation. At the time, hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients, describing stretchers filled with people waiting for beds and critical surgeries delayed.

The face-covering requirement covered both vaccinated and unvaccinated people – though the Edwards administration made little public effort to strongly enforce the mandate.

Shortly after the mandate resumed, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 per day peaked at a state-high of more than 3,000 and then started to fall. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has since dropped to 323, the lowest since early July and among the smallest number since the pandemic began, according to state data.

Louisiana now has one of the nation’s lowest rates of new COVID-19 infections, according to the CDC. The percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive also has dropped sizably over the last two months, falling below 3% statewide.

Though the last surge boosted coronavirus vaccination interest, Louisiana continues to have one of the country’s lowest immunization rates — with only 47% of the state’s population fully vaccinated.

“We will remain vulnerable in Louisiana to another surge until we can get more of our friends, family and neighbors vaccinated,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the governor’s chief public health adviser.