BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday partially lifted Louisiana's statewide mask mandate enacted to combat the coronavirus outbreak, limiting the face covering requirement to schools, hospitals, clinics and other specific locations.
The Democratic governor’s decision to roll back the mask mandate he enacted in July is at odds with the recommendations of President Joe Biden’s administration, but puts him more in line with other Southern state leaders who have either ended their statewide face covering requirement or never enacted one at all.
The new rules starting Wednesday will require people in Louisiana to wear masks on public transit and in health care facilities, daycare centers, K-12 schools, colleges and universities. A face covering will be required in some state buildings as well, as decided by the leaders in charge of the building. Edwards said all buildings under his administration's control will require masks, including the three floors that house his offices in the Louisiana Capitol.
Local officials and businesses can enact their own mask mandates, if they choose.
Despite the change to his restrictions, Edwards still argued that mask wearing is one of the most effective ways to lessen the spread of the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.
“It’s not an end to mask wearing. It’s not an end to recommendations that people wear masks,” the governor said. “But I think it is a reflection of where we are at this stage of the pandemic.”
But the Edwards administration has not tightly enforced the face covering requirement when it’s been on the books. Many people around the state already have flouted the mask mandate, including Republican and Democratic lawmakers meeting in session at the state Capitol.
Since he expanded access to the coronavirus vaccine to anyone 16 and older in the state, Edwards has loosened his restrictions — even though the state has had trouble persuading people to get immunized. In March, the governor ended many of the statewide coronavirus limits for businesses.
Specific restrictions have remained in place for sporting events, live music venues, event spaces, reception halls and large indoor gatherings. Edwards tweaked those rules as well Tuesday. Weddings, sporting events and conferences will be limited to 75% of their occupancy capacity, but they can move to 100% if they enforce a mask mandate.
The leader of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber applauded the governor's announcement. Adam Knapp called it an “indication that our efforts around vaccination and lowering the rate of transmission have so far been successful.”
“This will be an opportunity for business owners to reassess their protocols and establish safety practices that work for them, their employees and their customers,” Knapp said in a statement.
The governor's latest coronavirus executive order expires May 26.
Louisiana has seen significant declines in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 since vaccinations began. But public health officials have worried that vaccination rates in Louisiana remain low as a more contagious variant of the virus is spreading in the state.
Meanwhile, Louisiana lags most other states in vaccine distribution.
Nearly 1.5 million people in Louisiana — 32% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. More than 1.2 million people have been fully immunized, about 26% of the population.
Still, Louisiana continues to lag behind many other states in vaccine distribution. The state ranked 41st among states Tuesday in the number of vaccine doses administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.