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Reopening plans considered as Louisiana unemployment climbs

April 23, 2020 GMT
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Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses steps being taken to fight the coronavirus and the status of cases in the state during a press conference at the GOHSEP Thursday April 23, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP, Pool)
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Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses steps being taken to fight the coronavirus and the status of cases in the state during a press conference at the GOHSEP Thursday April 23, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The number of people filing unemployment insurance claims in Louisiana last week neared 340,000, according to state labor department figures released Thursday, the latest sign of how the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus has walloped the state economy.

Nearly 92,000 people filed initial unemployment claims last week, compared to fewer than 1,600 for the comparable week in 2019, the Louisiana Workforce Commission figures showed. People filing for continuing claims totaled 246,296. For the comparable week last year, that figure was 13,218.

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At an online Thursday morning meeting of a new legislative recovery task force, economist Loren Scott said state unemployment could eventually hit 22%.

“The month of April is going to sting,” Scott told the panel, which has a goal of getting its first set of short-term recommendations to lawmakers by May 7.

Scott said Louisiana will be helped by any national economic recovery. But the state has the extra problem of low oil prices caused not only by the pandemic but also by the glut of oil stemming from the feud between oil producing countries Russia and Saudi Arabia. He said the state also is seeing a hit to the construction industry because plans for several major LNG projects and other facilities have been delayed.

In a separate set of legislative calls, Senate President Page Cortez notified his colleagues that he contracted the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus a month ago, had minor flu-like symptoms from the illness and recovered.

Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, said he didn’t receive test results confirming his COVID-19 infection until days after he felt better. The Senate leader said he started to feel ill three days after the Louisiana Legislature temporarily adjourned in mid-March, though he didn’t tell senators until Thursday.

Cortez is the first senator to publicly say he tested positive for the coronavirus. In the House, one lawmaker has died from complications related to COVID-19, while another was hospitalized with the disease and recovered.

The state’s estimated death toll from COVID-19 hit 1,540 on Thursday, up from 1,470 a day earlier. Gov. John Bel Edwards noted at his daily news conference that the number this week surpassed the state’s estimated death toll from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Deaths attributed to Katrina and other disasters often vary widely, depending on the source. The Louisiana Recovery authority pegs the number of deaths in the state attributable to the storm at 1,464.

Louisiana’s emergency stay-at-home orders and bans on gatherings of more than 10 people are set to expire April 30. Edwards is expected to announce as early as Monday how the state might begin to re-open the economy if certain benchmarks in White House guidance are met. Those involve the growth in cases, hospitalizations and the number of people reported with certain symptoms within a 14-day period.

Legislative leaders, Cortez said, are waiting for Edwards’ reopening decisions to determine when and how they’ll resume the annual legislative session.

Whatever next week’s new guidance entails, it is certain to involve recommendations, and in some cases, requirements that people wear protective masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

But Edwards said he does not currently foresee calling for arrests or fines of people who fail to don appropriate face coverings in public.

Wearing a mask protects other people and is the polite thing to do, he said. He said new regulations will likely require that businesses have employees who deal with the public wear masks, adding that members of the public might avoid businesses that fail to comply.

“The masks are a central component of making sure that we slow the spread,” Edwards said. “But I don’t see us getting to a point where we’re on the streets arresting people who don’t have a mask on.”

Louisiana’s number of known coronavirus infections, based on testing by the state health department and commercial labs, has topped 25,700.

However, the number hospitalized in the state dropped to 1,727 Thursday. It has consistently been under 1,800 in recent days after having peaked at 2,134 earlier this month. And the number of patients needing ventilators, 287 on Wednesday, fell to 274 Thursday. It had peaked at 571 in early April.

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Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge, La.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.