High school athletic events, including the start of the football playoffs this weekend, will continue under Gov. John Bel Edwards' latest coronavirus restrictions, but they will happen under tighter capacity limits and social distancing measures that are now required.
Eddie Bonine, executive director of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, said that past guidelines that had previously recommended masking for players on the sidelines, fans and others will now be required and should be more rigorously enforced.
All parishes will also be held to 25% outdoor stadium and indoor gym capacity and social distancing among fans, cheerleaders, band members and others, he said.
He said past enforcement of that requirement and of the masking guidelines could be lackadaisical, saying he understands that people didn't want to be "the COVID(-19) police" beforehand.
"Well, either we do it, or the governor will. It's that simple," Bonine said.
Edwards signed an executive order that sent the state back into new, modified Phase II restrictions for the novel coronavirus on Wednesday after state data showed a rising number of cases and increasing test positivity rates have spared no region of Louisiana.
Edwards and his health officials say they want to try to clamp down on the growth in cases before hospitals are overwhelmed. In some other states, the virus is already raging and straining medical capacity.
Under the latest numbers released Wednesday, more than half of Louisiana's parishes have double-digit test positivity rates. In the Baton Rouge region, four of its 12 parishes are in the top 15 for positivity across the state.
Bonine concluded changes were necessary after speaking with Edwards and other state officials about the state of the virus' spread across the state and the implications of Edwards's new orders that took effect Wednesday.
Bonine said he clarified in speaking with state officials that the new, modified Phase II rules would allow contact sports like football, basketball and wrestling to continue — the old Phase II rules earlier this year didn't — but also acknowledged that the planned tightening of the existing requirements could hurt some schools in ticket sales.
"But the bigger picture is public safety, and we have to now monitor very closely how many people you put in your football stadium. You account for all of them. How many people you put in your gymnasium, you account for all of them, and all those you're accounted for, are wearing masks and are social distanced," he said.
Under the older rules, parishes with positivity rates of 5% or less could have up to 50% capacity in athletic venues, Bonine said. But with lax enforcement, 50% stadium capacity limits sometimes resulted in 75% of athletic venues being filled.
He said the LHSAA has been supplied daily with video, photographic and social media evidence of instances where the old guidelines didn't appear to have been enforced rigorously, with people "just elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder not wearing masks."
"People were looking at it with a blind eye," Bonine said.
Under the latest state health data, Iberville Parish had the highest positivity rate in the Baton Rouge area at 17.2%, sixth highest in Louisiana. Livingston was eighth statewide, at 16.3% positivity. East Baton Rouge Parish was at 7.3%. The weekly positivity figures run through Nov. 18.
A month ago, none of the 12 parishes in the Baton Rouge region had positivity rates that broke double digits; now half do.
Statewide, Orleans Parish had the lowest test positivity, 2%, in the latest numbers. Mayor LaToya Cantrell has faced continued criticism from restaurateurs, business groups and others over her often stricter approach to the virus in the tourism-dependent city than the state of Louisiana as whole.
Positivity rate shows the share of new tests that turn up positive case in a given batch of tests and is seen as one indicator of viral spread and the penetration of testing efforts.
All things being equal, if viral spread is unchanged or declining, increased testing should lead to reduced positivity percentages. Increasing positivity rates or double-digit rates are seen as a bad sign.
Under this new health data, however, Edwards' new coronavirus restrictions offer a mixed picture for bars.
Eleven out of 12 parishes in the Baton Rouge area can no longer have indoor alcohol sales and consumption at bars, including East Baton Rouge Parish, because their positivity rates have exceeded 5%.
But every parish in the region will now be able to have sales on outdoor bar patios and decks with capacity limits, including those parishes that had previously been unable to reopen their bars at all or had lost that ability due to rising rates of infection.
Shauna Sanford, spokeswoman for Edwards, said that Edwards' new rules for bars did away with old rules that had barred any on-premises alcohol sales and consumption for parishes with two consecutive weeks of 10% positivity or greater.
That means parishes with double-digit positivity rates and that have never been able to reopen bars since they shut down in the summer and can now reopen on a limited basis outdoors.
"That is an option they have now that they didn't have before," Sanford said.
Under those new rules , patrons can drink at tables only. They can use only 25% capacity outdoor capacity with a maximum of 50 people. Social distancing is required. Take-out and delivery will still be available.
East Feliciana Parish is the only parish in the Baton Rouge region with a positivity rate low enough to have on-premises, indoor alcohol sales at bars, state data show. But parish leaders have not sought to authorization to reopen them because the parish's lack of bars.
Statewide, only seven parishes have the ability to keep bars open for indoor service. Outside of East Feliciana, they are Catahoula, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist.
All bars also must close at 11 p.m. and only allow people 21 and older, according to the governor’s order.