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Louisiana: Stay-at-home until May 15, then some reopening

April 28, 2020 GMT
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Closed businesses are seen on Bourbon Street due to the coronavirus pandemic, in New Orleans, Friday, April 24, 2020. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via AP)
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Closed businesses are seen on Bourbon Street due to the coronavirus pandemic, in New Orleans, Friday, April 24, 2020. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he is extending Louisiana’s stay-at-home order through May 15, saying some regions haven’t shown enough progress in fighting the coronavirus outbreak to lessen widespread restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

But if the state’s rate of infections continues to fall, the Democratic governor said he expects his constraints will begin to loosen on May 16. He said more churches and retailers would thus be allowed to open statewide at that time, including hair and nail salons and some restaurant dine-in services — all at only 25% of their legal occupancy rates.

Until mid-May, however, Edwards’ current March 23 order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery and closing casinos, gyms, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and salons will largely remain in place.

Edwards said he made the decision in consultation with infectious disease specialists and other public health experts, as Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation for confirmed virus cases per capita. He said they used the White House guidelines for phased reopening, and Louisiana didn’t yet meet the first phase. He said he told Vice President Mike Pence about the extension of the stay-home order and Pence supported the decision.

“If we move too quickly that wouldn’t be good for public health or for our economy” because that could cause new spikes in virus cases, and the state would have to “slam on the brakes,” Edwards said.

“The worst thing I can do is ignore the reality and pretend we’re in a better place than we are,” he said.

A few modest changes will start Friday. Restaurants will be allowed to seat people outside, though without waiter service at the tables. Mall stores will be allowed to do curbside retail. And all people who interact with the public at work will have to wear masks.

The governor’s announcement prompted criticism.

“We’re real concerned about what this is going to do to the economy,” said Dawn Starns, Louisiana director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. She added: “This is really difficult for small business owners. Many are in areas that are not greatly impacted.”

While the rate of confirmed virus infections has slowed statewide, Edwards pointed to data showing cases have grown over the last two weeks in northeast Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area and Acadiana.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, issued a statement expressing disappointment in Edwards’ decision. He said businesses that have been up and running during the virus outbreak have shown they can take steps to protect the public.

“Right now, other small businesses are simply asking for the same right to show they too can operate safely and responsibly to serve their community and hire back their workers,” Waguespack said.

Edwards had cautioned he would use a “very gradual effort” to loosen restrictions enacted to stem the virus outbreak. His first small step began Monday when “time-sensitive” elective medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, biopsies and dental procedures, were allowed to restart.

The governor has acted more cautiously than some other Southern governors. He defended the approach Monday as justified because Louisiana has a much higher per-capita rate of cases than its neighbors. He also noted that Louisiana has never forced the shuttering of many retailers that were closed in other states, allowing boutiques, jewelry stores and certain other non-essential businesses to remain open if they don’t have more than 10 people in the store at a time.

Louisiana became one of the U.S. hot spots for virus outbreaks in March, but has seen encouraging signs in combating the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. The rates of new infections and hospitalizations have slowed statewide.

Louisiana’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 1,697 on Monday, and more than 27,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, according to the state health department. More than 17,000 people are presumed recovered, the department says.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. But for others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

Edwards has so far rejected calls from some Republican officials to allow a parish-by-parish approach to reopening. And he has been cool to the idea of a regional approach, although he has said local officials can enact stronger rules than the state’s. In New Orleans, where more than 400 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s emergency order, which shuts down nonessential businesses and bans public gatherings, doesn’t expire until May 16.

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Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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