With COVID-19 rate still high, Louisiana enters eat-drink-and-be-merry phase

Restaurant capacity expanded day after CDC says dining in is risky

Cafe Du Monde, a 24-hour outdoor cafe typically overrun with tourists, remains empty in the New Orleans French Quarter amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on March 27, 2020). Under Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan, restaurants can now fill to 75 percent capacity. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

COVID-19 has been infecting fewer people in Louisiana than it did during a first peak in April or a second peak in July, and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday that the state was entering Phase 3 of its coronavirus reopening plan. Many Louisianians are probably celebrating the loosening of restrictions, but we’ll likely look back on the announcement of Phase 3 as the trigger to yet another distressing spike in cases.

We can hope that doesn’t happen, but hope alone hasn’t served us well during this pandemic.

Gov. Edwards could have moved Louisiana into Phase 3 as early as June 26, but he didn’t because residents hadn’t taken proper precautions during Phase 2 and — perhaps more importantly — because he himself had wasted time asking Louisianians to wear masks when he should have been ordering them to do so.

On June 4, the last day of Phase1 of the reopening, Louisiana collected 417 positive cases and reported that 6.91 percent of the tests conducted were positive. On June 21, slightly more than two weeks after Louisiana entered Phase 2, the positivity rate had exceeded 10 percent, which meant that Louisiana had once again entered what the White House Coronavirus Task Force calls the “red zone.” Louisiana collected 1,574 positive cases June 22.

On July 13, it collected 2,977 positive cases. That happens to have been the day that Gov. Edwards’ long-overdue face-mask mandate took effect, and we’ve seen a steady decline in cases since then. Even so, we still are counting more than 100 per cases per 100,000 people, which means the situation remains bad.

The best thing that can be said about the state’s move into Phase 3 is that Edwards is not relaxing the mandate that people wear face masks in public. But his explanation Friday that Phase 3 means that restaurants will be able to increase their seating capacity to 75 percent came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that people who test positive for COVID-19 “were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” than those who test negative.

“Eating and drinking on-site at locations that offer such options might be important risk factors associated with (the novel coronavirus) infection,” Thursday’s CDC report says. “Efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, such as when eating and drinking, should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities.”

Louisiana’s restaurants are a cornerstone of our tourism industry, which itself is a cornerstone of our economy. The combination of the public health restrictions and the inability of so many to afford eating out has caused an unprecedented crisis, and no one should want to see restaurants suffer any longer than they already have.

But if the CDC report is correct and there’s a strong correlation between dining in and getting sick, then seating more people in restaurants is not in the state’s best interest — at least not from a public health perspective.

We shouldn’t celebrate our limited success at decreasing infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths by removing the restrictions that helped bring about such success.

When dissenting from her fellow justices’ 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said getting rid of certain provisions of that act because discrimination against Black voters had diminished “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Ginsburg’s analogy should prompt us to ask an important question whenever we see that some phenomenon isn’t getting people as wet as it was.

Are they less soaked because the rain has stopped? Or are they less soaked because they’ve avoided the rain?

COVID-19 is a cloud of death that hovers still over Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Health added 41 new deaths to its cumulative tally Friday, pushing the total confirmed COVID-19 death count over 5,000 to 5,032. The 844 new cases reported Friday meant 156,172 confirmed cases in the state.

Yes, if you’re comparing those numbers to April 4 when 571 people were on ventilators or to April 11 when 1,987 people were in the hospital, then it may look like COVID-19 has lost some of its thunder. But the truth is that we’ve been mostly indoors and when we have gone out, there have been regulations in place — umbrellas, if you will — that kept us somewhat safer.

Before the governor announced that we were moving into Phase 3, LSU officials announced a plan that will allow the LSU Football Tigers to play before a Tiger Stadium crowd restricted to 25 percent capacity. But as Ed Trapido, an epidemiologist at LSU’s School of Public Health told Illuminator senior reporter Julie O’Donoghue, “There is no question there are going to be (COVID-19) cases that rise from it. It’s impossible to imagine a situation where that would not happen.”

Susan Hassig, a faculty member in the epidemiology department at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said the spread of disease won’t be limited to fans attending games. “I think it’s really dangerous for the Baton Rouge community frankly,” Hassig said. “I think they are going to have to push the hospitals back to critical levels.”

National journalists weren’t at all fair in March when they tried to force New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Gov. Edwards to admit that they irresponsibly allowed Mardi Gras to roll without interference. Those attempts to corner Cantrell and Edwards into some kind of mea culpa were journalistically bankrupt because there was no evidence on February 25 that the novel coronavirus was anywhere near Louisiana, and there were no warnings from our country’s public health officials that there was any need for New Orleanians or Louisianians to be concerned.

At this moment, though, we know that the new coronavirus is not only in Louisiana but that it has led to the deaths of more than 5,000 of our neighbors. Fittingly, Cantrell announced last week that New Orleans will remain in Phase 2, but  those journalists who were itching to catch Edwards in a moment of bad judgement need only have waited.

If a spike in cases and deaths follows the removal of restrictions, the governor won’t be able to talk about what could not have been known; for it’s been well known for a while what COVID-19 is doing to Louisiana.  It’s also well known what’s been helping: restricting the very activities that the state is now allowing to be expanded.