Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday extended the state’s current COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and public gatherings for at least another three weeks. These limitations have been in place since November, when Louisiana started to see its third surge in COVID-19 cases.
The COVID-19 rate of infection has been dropping in Louisiana since the second week of January. The number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations has also dropped over the last few weeks. Edwards said he hopes to loosen restrictions in March, so long as COVID-19 continues to decline in the state.
But for now, the rate of infection and serious cases is still high in the state, and the third surge that just ended was particularly deadly. More Louisiana residents died of COVID-19 in December and January than during any other month of the pandemic except April — when the state was first learning how to treat and slow the spread of the virus.
“We still have twice as many people in the hospital as we did over the summer,” Edwards said at Tuesday’s press conference.
The governor is also concerned about the impact of a more infectious — and potentially more lethal — COVID-19 variant on Louisiana in the coming weeks. The so-called U.K. variant — first identified in the United Kingdom — is already spreading in the state. It is part of the reason the governor said he isn’t loosening restrictions yet.
The U.K. variant can move from person to person as much as 50 percent more easily and could be as much as 30 percent more deadly, Edwards said. It’s expected to be the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the country by March.
The governor implied that Mardi Gras was also a factor in his decision making. Edwards said next Tuesday’s holiday could lead to more COVID-19 spread in Louisiana. Mardi Gras helped seed the virus in Louisiana last year before officials were aware that it was present in the state. It caused a surge in COVID-19 deaths in the spring.
The current restrictions — referred to as “modified Phase 2” — keep retail businesses, barber and beauty shops, nail salons, movie theaters, casinos and gyms at 50 percent of their capacity. Restaurants have to operate at 50 percent of their indoor capacity, though they are allowed to add spaces by expanding outdoor dining. The statewide mask mandate remains in place for people while they are inside buildings outside a personal residence and not eating or drinking.
The governor’s restrictions also keep sporting events at 25 percent capacity and reception centers at 25 percent capacity indoors or 75 individuals. Places of worship can hold up to 75 percent of their capacity.
Bars remain shuttered to indoor service for the most part. They can only open indoors if they are located in a parish where the percent of positive COVID-19 tests is below 5 percent for two consecutive weeks. Parish have struggled to meet this benchmark in recent months. Bars’ outdoor service is also reduced to 25 percent capacity, though they are allowed to run a drinks take-out business.
In the fall, there was significant pushback on the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, particularly those related to crowd control at high school football games and bar capacity. Republican legislators and Edwards are still fighting in court over whether the lawmakers have the ability to cancel the governor’s COVID-19 rules.
A group of Louisiana bars has filed yet another lawsuit to get the restrictions thrown out, though the court has consistently sided with Edwards over this matter. Several similar, previous lawsuits have already failed. Bars are also being given a lot of latitude to transform themselves into “restaurants,” thereby avoiding the more stringent rules.
Also, state and local law enforcement officials haven’t been particularly aggressive about enforcing the COVID-19 restrictions. Businesses who are cited for violating them are often given several chances to correct their behavior before being punished.