The East Baton Rouge Parish parks and recreation system Tuesday became one of the first agencies in the state to begin requiring masks or proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for people entering its indoor facilities, adopting a tough stand in an effort to slow the recent surge of cases. The city-parish said it is not considering the same move at this time.

The parks system said that, effectively immediately, all staff and visitors who spend more than 15 minutes inside any indoor facility must follow its new mandate. It said the move would most impact the administrative building at Womack Park on Florida Boulevard but does apply to indoor facilities parishwide.

“After suffering through a year of facilities closures, hospitalized employees, the lost friends and family members, including our beloved Commissioner Davis Rhorer, widespread forced isolation, online schooling and serious financial repercussions to the local economy, I want to make certain that BREC is doing everything it can to prevent a return to those conditions for the community we serve,” BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson said.

Masks or proof of vaccination will not be required by BREC for outdoor activities. Summer camps already require unvaccinated staff members to wear masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible, the agency said.

The agency is possibly the first in the state to require proof of vaccination or use of a mask as COVID-19 cases surge across Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Health said it does not compile information on municipal COVID restrictions. Louisiana Municipal Association Executive Director John Gallagher said he was not aware of any other government agency imposing such a requirement.

About an hour after BREC announced its new mask mandate for the unvaccinated, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome held a news conference to urge residents to get any of the federally approved coronavirus vaccines to prevent a return to restrictions that defined much of 2020 and early 2021. She said the city-parish is not imposing any new restrictions at this time.

"We're not at that point yet," Broome said. "Making vaccinations mandatory is a complicated issue when you're talking about an entire community. There are individual companies and businesses that have the ability to require employees get vaccinated. We're not having those conversations yet."

Other city-parish agencies are following the lead of City Hall.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Library does not require the wearing of masks or face coverings in its locations and has no immediate plans to reimpose a mandate, said Mary Stein, the assistant library director.

"We work and operate our facilities within the framework of any guidelines sent from City-Parish," Stein wrote in an email. "We are certainly watching the local 'COVID Landscape' closely, but have not implemented any changes at this time."

The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, which serves a clientele vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly if they aren't vaccinated, did not respond to requests for comment.

As of Monday, statewide hospitalization rates reached their highest since mid-February, with the state's Department of Health reporting that 711 patients were occupying hospital beds due to COVID-19 — an increase of 148 patients since Friday.

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The state on Monday reported 3,985 new cases over the weekend, with individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 accounting for 25% of those cases.

The number of new cases jumped to 1,325 on Tuesday as hospitalizations and ventilator usage continued to rise.

“This virus is not going to go away and we never thought that it would,” Dr. Tatiana Saavedra, with Baton Rouge Clinic, said Tuesday. “All we could say a year ago was that this pandemic was not going to end until there was a vaccine. It’s available now. I find it disheartening we have such low numbers in vaccinations.”

This fourth surge is COVID numbers is mostly driven by the delta variant, she said. It is so infectious compared to the original strain that Saavedra said one person will likely infect upwards of eight to nine other people.

Broome, along with local medical professionals, stressed that vaccines are still 90% effective against all current strains of the respiratory virus.

Dr. Louis Minsky with Baton Rouge General said half of the COVID patients who showed up in their emergency room have been under 40 years old and 25% of those admitted with coronavirus recently were under the age of 40.

The spread of the more highly-contagious delta strain has seen the most alarming surges in state's like Louisiana where vaccination rates are lower compared to other places in the country.

As of Tuesday, Broome said 40% of the parish's residents are fully vaccinated and 44% have had at least one shot of a two-shot vaccine series.

The most underrepresented population, when it comes to vaccinations, are young people, she said.

“I don’t think there is anyone who wants to go backwards, but if we get to a point where things are just out of control with the COVID variant, then we have to look seriously at all options,” Broome responded when asked if she would consider reimplementing restrictions. “We’ve not had that conversation yet. I'm hoping that people will do what needs to be done and that is get vaccinated.”


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com