In this file photo from July, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, speaks during a visit to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a roundtable discussion with state leaders about the state’s coronavirus response. The task force is reporting a a 175 percent increase in Louisiana’s COVID-19 cases since last week. (Photo by Wes Muller/LAI).
More than two months after Louisiana’s relatively low COVID-19 numbers gave Gov. John Bel Edwards a reason to move to Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, the governor announced Tuesday that he is returning the state to a “revised Phase Two.”
That means lower capacities in restaurants, gyms and “nonessential” retail establishments and sports stadiums. Bars will not be allowed to serve patrons inside if more than 5 percent of COVID-19 tests in their parish are positive.
The new rules will go into effect Wednesday morning and last for 28 days to December 23. Edwards said if national experts are correct and the U.S. is entering a rough stretch of months, then the tougher restrictions will have to be renewed at Christmastime.
Though it won’t be included in his official proclamation, the governor said, he’s asking all employers — in the public and private sector — to let their employees work from home to the greatest extent possible and asking residents across the state to curtail holiday parties and big family gatherings during the holiday season. He made his remarks two days before Thanksgiving and pleaded with residents to make sure they and their loved ones will have future Thanksgivings by scaling back Thursday’s gatherings.
Edward said he’s asking residents of the state to get serious and to remember the things they did to drive down the numbers during the COVID-19 surges in the spring and summer
“Originally, I would remind everybody, we flattened the curve,” Edwards said. He said that Louisiana’s out-of-control summer COVID-19 numbers were corralled with a statewide mask mandate. “We did it with those phase two restrictions,” he said. “So I’m not asking the people of Louisiana to do something for the very first time here. We know that these things will work. But we’ve got to have more compliance.”
Though Edwards predicted that one or more COVID-19 vaccines could be available to Louisianians in a matter of months, he warned that residents shouldn’t let the promise of a vaccine distract them from the necessity of washing their hands, wearing face masks and keeping their distance from others right now.
The governor’s announcement came two days after the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, sounded the alarm on the COVID-19 situation in Louisiana.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the state has skyrocketed from 172 per 100,000 people last week to 474 per 100,000 this week, a 175 percent increase that pushes Louisiana well ahead of the national average of 365 cases per 100,000 people. COVID-19 deaths in the state, according to the White House report, were up 255 percent over the previous week. COVID-19 hospital admissions increased 27 percent during that same period.
Louisiana had recently been receiving praise for having relatively low and stable COVID-19 numbers even as the situation worsened across the country. But that’s no longer the case.
“Now is as concerning as it has ever been,” Dr. Joe Kanter, the interim head of Louisiana’s public health office said. “There’s no question about it that we were lucky for a few weeks, watching the rest of the country really go up and up with COVID. And we were sitting here kind of waiting. That luck has clearly run out now. And we are exactly where a large part of the country is.”
Kanter named four reasons Louisiana’s current spike is especially worrisome. It coincides with flu season. Lower temperatures will drive more people indoors where COVID-19 is more easily spread. People traditionally gather for large feasts and parties at this time of the year. Lastly, the current spike isn’t localized. Numbers are up all over the country.
Kanter said families wondering if they should go through with their plans for a big Thanksgiving gathering should “talk to somebody who’s been on the other end and has a bad experience with COVID. Talk to someone that has worked in the hospital during the previous two surges. And after that, I think families are going to come around and say, ‘You know what, it’s not worth the risk.’”
Edwards has consistently been criticized by many of the state’s conservatives who have accused him of overreacting to the threat of the disease by imposing restrictions that kill the state’s economy. That criticism continued Tuesday when Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the Pelican Institute, a conservative think tank, accused the governor of helping ruin the holiday season.
“Lost jobs and livelihoods weren’t on any Louisianans’ Christmas lists this year,” Erspamer said in a statement. “Today’s decision by the governor will make matters worse for Louisiana families who have been suffering for months on end. From food and housing insecurity to long-term mental and physical health challenges, shutting down the economy has real and lasting consequences that go beyond lost paychecks.”
Erspamer continued: “Everyone wants to protect our most vulnerable citizens but reverting to blunt instrument lockdown policies that have dire unintended consequences is unwise and disappointing. We can solve these dual crises together, but once again locking down the lives and livelihoods of Louisiana families is not the answer.”
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District, accused the governor in a Facebook post of being “incredibly arrogant” by not trusting the residents of the state to decide “our own parameters of personal interaction.” Higgins wrote: “Basically, our Governor is telling Louisiana citizens that we’re too stupid to run our own lives. You’re wrong, Governor Edwards. And we’re not going to abide by your executive decree oppression. You are not a King.”
As he announced even tighter restrictions Tuesday, Edward said he has no other choice. “There are no magic tricks to be worked here. The only way you stop the search is by these restrictions and mitigation measures…. If somebody had presented me another option, a better option, about flattening the curve, I would have taken it. I know we have COVID fatigue here and around the country. If there were something other than wearing mask and physically distancing and washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick and so forth, I would embrace it. It doesn’t exist.”
As of Wednesday, 6,323 people in Louisiana had died of COVID-19. As of Wednesday across the United States , 259,767 had died.
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