State alcohol licensing authorities on Wednesday made St. James Parish one of five parishes in Louisiana allowed to reopen bars after hitting state health benchmarks.
One other parish in the Baton Rouge area, Assumption, also met the standards measuring the impact of the novel coronavirus but didn't immediately get authorization, though state officials said late Wednesday afternoon they were processing the request to reopen.
St. James officials had gotten authorization to open bars last month only to have it pulled back hours later after state bar licensing officials conferred with the state Department of Health and determined the coronavirus standard hadn't been met.
Since then, Ernest Legier Jr., the state alcohol and tobacco control commissioner, has said the various departments involved in the bar reopening process had improved the communication flow for those weekly decisions.
St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne welcomed the latest authorization, which also affects the municipalities of Lutcher and Gramercy. He also warned people to adhere to safety guidelines.
"The residents and business owners of our parish have been complying with local and state mandates, therefore, affording us the opportunity to lift restrictions,” Dufresne said in a statement Wednesday. “I encourage businesses to follow the Governor’s guidelines in hopes of continuing to lessen restrictions in St. James Parish.”
With the looser rules, bars and other alcohol-serving establishments can operate with table service at 25% capacity with up to 50 patrons until 11 p.m. Other restrictions also apply.
Under Gov. John Bel Edwards' Phase 3 rules, parishes with 5% or less of tests returning positive over two consecutive weeks can seek to have their bars, daiquiri shops and breweries reopen for on-premises alcohol consumption after closures during a second rise in viral cases this summer.
Before those changes take effect, however, the parishes must opt-in with Legier's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and receive its blessing.
While waiting for viral test positivity rates to drop, the Assumption Parish Police Jury agreed to opt-in in advance about two weeks ago and had sent that request to the ATC, said John Boudreaux, parish homeland security director.
But Assumption's name didn't appear on the ATC's initial list of newly opened parishes Wednesday. Legier said the parish's request came through traditional mail. All others had come through email.
"We are currently processing the request. We regret the initial oversight," he said.
Other parishes reopening Wednesday are Grant, St. Tammany, Terrebonne and Vernon parishes, the ATC says.
Iberville Parish was the first in the Baton Rouge area to reopen bars nearly two weeks ago and three more joined that parish last week: East Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes.
On Wednesday, St. James Parish had two consecutive weeks of 1.6% positivity, while Assumption Parish had two consecutive weeks of 2.3% positivity. The two weekly periods extended from Sept. 17 to Sept. 30.
The positivity rate shows the share of positive tests in a given batch of testing.
Health experts say the percentage is one measure of viral spread but also an indicator of the penetration of testing efforts into the community. All things being equal, increased testing should lead to lower positivity rates as long as the rate of viral spread isn't increasing.
Ascension and West Feliciana parishes logged their first weeks of sub-5% positivity, setting up the chance next week for bars to reopen with another strong week of data.
In neighboring Livingston Parish, bar reopenings are at least another two weeks away as positivity rose from 6.6% to 7.1% week to week.
East Feliciana Parish met the two-week health benchmarks last week and continued that trend on Wednesday, as positivity declined further to 1.1% for the week of Sept. 24 to 30. The parish, however, has not opted in to Phase 3, the ATC says.
Under state rules, parishes that have reopened bars and then had positivity rates rise back up must close bars again if that rate surpasses 10% or more for two consecutive weeks. Bars can't reopen until rates come back down at or below the 5% threshold for another two consecutive weeks.
None of the Baton Rouge-area parishes that have already had bars reopen have surpassed the 10% threshold but two, West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee, have seen increases over the latest two weeks. West Baton Rouge's rate rose most, from 3.7% to 5.6% week to week.
Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans has broken the 10% threshold for one week, rising from 8.5% to 11.3% week to week. Another bad week could force bar closures again.
The state Department of Health publishes weekly positivity percentages on Wednesdays and has a one-week lag in its reporting.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.