BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he's scrapping nearly every remaining coronavirus restriction in Louisiana and lifting the statewide requirement that students must wear a mask in the classroom and at school events.
The Democratic governor will keep the statewide public health emergency declaration in place, but Louisiana will have almost none of the rules governing businesses and behavior that were enacted over the last 15 months of the pandemic.
“There's no doubt we are in a better place today than we've been at any point thus far in the pandemic,” Edwards said. “And that is because of medical science.”
Edwards cited the wide availability of the coronavirus vaccine in Louisiana, saying anyone who wants the protection offered by immunization against the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus can receive one. But many people aren't bothering to get the shots, with only 31% of the state's 4.6 million residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The final vestiges of the restrictions that Edwards had left in place over the last month — including limits on bars, live music venues, athletic events and large gatherings — all will be removed under the new executive order to take effect Wednesday.
Masks still will be required on public transit, in health care facilities and in prisons and jails, as suggested by federal officials. But the other remaining face covering requirement for early learning centers, K-12 schools and universities will end. School district and university leaders can decide on their own if they want to mandate masks for summer school, summer camps and fall classes.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had asked Edwards to lift the mask mandate for K-12 schools and leave that decision to local school systems.
“My desire has been that we would move closer to putting this decision back in the hands of those closest to students, and no one is closer than a child’s parent,” board President Sandy Holloway said in a statement. “Throughout the pandemic BESE has worked hard to strike the right balance, and I am eager for our students to be able to enjoy quality, in-person instruction without a mask.”
Local parish leaders and business owners also can still require masks if they choose.
Edwards reminded Louisiana residents that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear a mask in public.
The CDC says only people who are fully vaccinated — two weeks past their one-shot or two-shot regimen, depending on the vaccine — should consider resuming normal activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing. But many Louisiana residents have engaged in their pre-pandemic activities for months whether they've been vaccinated or not.
Louisiana has seen significant declines in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and the number of people dying from the illness since vaccinations began. The Edwards administration attributed that to the strong vaccination rates at nursing homes and among the state's elderly.
Louisiana continues to lag most other states in vaccine distribution, however, even as it rolled out a widespread grassroots outreach effort to make it easier to access the doses. Edwards said his administration will redouble that work.
“We're not giving up,” he said.
The governor said Louisiana soon will roll out some vaccine incentives, like other states have done. But he said it was too early to announce those plans.
More than 1.6 million people in Louisiana — 35% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. More than 1.4 million people have been fully immunized, about 31% of the population.
Only Mississippi and Alabama have lower vaccination rates per capita among states than Louisiana, according to the CDC.
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.