Louisiana’s COVID-19 restrictions too onerous, Republican lawmakers tell state health officials

State health officer warns of a future outbreak even worse than the spring’s

An empty classroom in McNeese State University.

Pushing back against Louisiana lawmakers who believe that the state’s continuing COVID-19 restrictions are disproportionate to the threat, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health spoke ominously Wednesday of infections yet to come:  “I predict there’s going to be another spike, and it’s going to be in flu season,  and it’s going to be as much, if not more than what we saw in the spring,” Guidry said at a House Education, Health and Welfare committee meeting. 

Guidry and Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Joe Kanter addressed the committee during a meeting where the committee discussed topics that included crowd capacity at sporting events and restrictions for students returning to school. Those lawmakers often argued with the two health officials about the need for ongoing precautions. 

The argument took place during a special session that Republican lawmakers called to express their frustration with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ public health declarations and to take at least some of the power the governor has for themselves. 

Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, the chair of the House Education Committee, asked Guidry how the government should balance the need to educate children and keep them safe. “If you’ve seen the numbers,” Garofalo said, “there’s a very, very small impact to these students and the teachers that are teaching them.”

Garofalo’s question prompted Guidry’s prediction of a future outbreak worse than the outbreak in the spring. He said his biggest fear is Louisianans relaxing because of the low number of outbreaks. Relaxing, he said, will lead to outbreaks.

Kanter said that is what makes the LDH’s job in public health so challenging. “When you’re doing the right things, when my colleagues are performing at the top of their game, no one recognizes it because viruses are kept at bay,” Kanter said. “And you forget the reason they’re kept at bay is because we’re doing the right things. And when you stop doing the right things, then all of a sudden people recognize what your job was.”

Some lawmakers asked why residents who want to accept the risks of socializing without restrictions cannot make such a decision for themselves without government interference.

Kanter said, “5,300 people have died in Louisiana from COVID, and I don’t suppose many of them chose to put themselves at risk.” He said 60 percent of Louisianans who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic at the time of those tests and that the state has implemented restrictions “so that people don’t unknowingly put other people at risk.” 

Reps. Chris Turner, R-Ruston,  and Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, argued for increased seating capacity at sports events. “I’m not trying to speak for anybody else, but for a lot of the smaller towns, a lot of the smaller schools, football is more like a way of life,” Turner said. Crews called the current 25 percent capacity limit an arbitrary number and said raising the limit to 80 percent capacity “would make my constituents happier.”

Kanter warned that people with COVID-19 infections are present even in stadiums that are a quarter full. “You will have COVID in that crowd (of an LSU or Saints game),” he said. “It may spread. It may not spread. That’s the essence of the risk.  How do you allow for the event in a way that is as safe as possible?” 

Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, said if Louisiana allows the sale of cigarettes and 7,200 residents die every year from smoking, then it should allow people to enter bars and restaurants as they choose. He also said he wanted Louisiana residents to stop putting off doctors’ visits because they’re scared of getting sick. Kanter said he agreed with him that people should be encouraged to see their medical care professionals and not put off care.

“You can’t shut everything down in order to provide (for at-risk people’s needs),” Crews said before arguing that the state should allow its residents, including its children to “have an acquired immunity.”

Kanter said 2 to 4 percent of new positive COVID-19 cases will die, and called Crews’ idea “disastrous.”

“There is not one professional, medical or public health society that agrees with that viewpoint,” he said.