BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he’s allowing bars and spas that have been shuttered because of the coronavirus outbreak to reopen this weekend, as he further eases restrictions on businesses in a state once one of the nation’s hot spots in the pandemic.
“We are seeing signs of progress. Louisiana is headed in the right direction,” Edwards said. But he cautioned his state’s residents to remember: “There still is a lot of COVID out there.”
The latest loosening of the rules will start Friday, under the plans announced by the Democratic governor, and they will be in effect until June 26. They won't take effect in New Orleans, however, where city officials say they want more time to gather data.
In the rest of Louisiana, bars, massage facilities, bowling alleys, recreational pools and tattoo shops will be able to restart operations, with heavy restrictions on how they interact with customers. Churches, restaurants, gyms, hair salons and other businesses that have reopened at 25% capacity since mid-May can move to 50% of their occupancy rate. Bars without a food permit will be restricted to 25% capacity, with patrons required to be seated. The requirements outlined Monday are based on what are known as “Phase 2” reopening guidance issued by the White House.
Employees interacting with the public still will be required to wear masks, and the governor encouraged businesses to consider using temperature checks to determine who can enter their premises.
Live music and theater venues will remain closed.
Edwards cited continued declines in new deaths and new hospitalizations attributed to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus as allowing for the easing of restrictions.
But he also cautioned that people who are most at risk of severe symptoms and death from COVID-19 – the elderly and people with certain underlying health conditions -- should continue to stay home as much as possible. He also urged people to wear masks when encountering others outside their households and to practice physical distancing.
Edwards and Assistant Health Secretary Dr. Alex Billioux acknowledged that the state's progress is uneven. For instance, hospitalizations continue to climb in central and northeast Louisiana. But they said they are confident that the state is ready to move to the next phase, pointing to increased testing and virus tracking efforts.
Still, the state's lifting of restrictions won’t apply in one jurisdiction, the original epicenter of Louisiana’s outbreak. New Orleans officials made clear last week that they’d like to see more data before deciding how and when to further open the city.
Like the state, New Orleans now allows dining inside restaurants, hair and nail salons and church services, with 25% limits on capacity. But unlike the state, the city has yet to allow casinos to reopen.
One concern voiced by the New Orleans health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, was the likelihood that many New Orleans area residents were among crowds on Gulf Coast beaches during the Memorial Day weekend. The city needs to watch to see whether any of those travelers might be spreading the virus, she said.
“We are watching the data, not the date,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Monday.
Edwards has been under continued pressure from Republican officials since early May, when he extended his first, strict stay-at-home emergency order. That order, issued in mid-March when the state was a hot spot for COVID-19, was lifted May 15.
But GOP officials pressed for further loosening of restrictions.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, who early in the coronavirus crisis was supportive of Edwards’ efforts, joined Republican state lawmakers in sending the governor a letter Sunday urging him to reopen all businesses and put them under the same regulations.
“The piecemeal method picks winners and losers, crippling small businesses and forcing too many into bankruptcy or closure,” they wrote.
At his Monday afternoon news conference, Edwards stressed, as he often does that his reopening plans adhere to White House guidelines, “which treat different businesses and different activities differently.”
Louisiana has had more than 40,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as of midday Monday. The death toll rose by four to 2,690. The state says more than 31,700 have recovered. Hospitalizations, a key factor in whether restrictions are loosened, dropped to 661 after peaking at more than 2,100 in early April.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.
McGill reported from New Orleans.