BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The White House's coronavirus response coordinator Wednesday hailed Gov. John Bel Edwards' COVID-19 restrictions as helping to save lives, giving the Democratic governor a boost on the eve of a special session where Republican lawmakers will work to strip some of those regulations.
Dr. Deborah Birx applauded Edwards' leadership in responding to Louisiana's coronavirus outbreak, which surged in the New Orleans area in March and then statewide in June and July. She described the statewide mask mandate, limitations on bars and other restrictions as appropriate to combat the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
“Louisiana made changes that saved people's lives, both in the March/April timeframe in New Orleans and in the summer post-Memorial Day surge throughout the state,” Birx said.
She added: “We've learned that masks work. We've learned that restrictions on indoor dining work. We've learned that closing bars at a time of high transmission definitely works."
The White House official spoke with reporters at Louisiana State University, after holding a closed-door meeting with Edwards, state college system leaders and students. She’s held similar meetings in two dozen other states.
Birx’s comments continued a trend of the Trump administration praising the efforts of Louisiana's Democratic governor to combat the pandemic, even as many of President Donald Trump's supporters in the state pan Edwards' performance.
Louisiana's majority-Republican Legislature is convening a 30-day special session Monday. At the top of the agenda is a GOP-led effort to try to roll back the governor's emergency powers and revoke some of his coronavirus restrictions.
Republicans say Edwards has damaged Louisiana’s economy and businesses through regulations he’s enacted since mid-March. The governor said he’s trying to allow businesses to operate while also controlling an outbreak that has killed 5,225 people in Louisiana, according to the state health department's latest figures Wednesday.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican from Ascension Parish, described “what many see as an imbalance of power” in the governor's emergency authority and pledged that the “special session will not end without a solution to this problem.”
It’s unclear what sorts of limits on the governor’s power lawmakers will propose.
GOP Senate President Page Cortez, of Lafayette, said legislators want the ability to weigh in on the response when an emergency extends for months.
“I believe that the governor needs to be able to declare an emergency and have the authority to be nimble enough to operate within that emergency. But at a certain point, when the emergency becomes so extended, the policymaking body should be involved in those conversations,” Cortez said.
Edwards loosened restrictions earlier this month, allowing restaurants, churches, gyms and other businesses to operate at 75% of their capacity, agreeing to resume high school football and authorizing LSU to have 25,000 fans in Tiger Stadium for football games.
But he's maintained tight limits on bars, keeping them to takeout and delivery sales only unless they operate in a parish that has recently seen low percentages of coronavirus tests returning positive. He's also put an 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales at restaurants, bars and casinos.
Edwards defended his decision-making Wednesday as in line with the recommendations of the White House’s coronavirus task force — as communicated through what he described as frequent conversations with Birx.
“If you move away from the things that work, then you jeopardize public health,” the governor said.
Birx cautioned that with K-12 schools and universities reopening and the flu season nearing: “Now is not the time to really loosen restrictions. Now is the time to make sure that we're all doing everything we can to bring cases down even further.”