As the White House recommends tighter restrictions in Louisiana to tamp down coronavirus cases, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday the state is seeing what he believes is the start of a plateau of cases and hospitalizations.
After seeing cases and hospitalizations surge in recent weeks to alarming levels, straining hospitals and prompting a statewide mask mandate and bar closure, Edwards pointed to some recent “good news”: the number of coronavirus patients in the hospital has been flat for nearly a week.
While he said he hopes it’s the beginning of a trend, he also said cases may be plateauing at a “really high number of cases.” And with bars closed following dozens of outbreaks tracked by the state Health Department, Edwards said he doesn’t know if bars will be allowed to open before there is a vaccine.
Louisiana officials on Tuesday said they only suspended licenses for four establishments over the weekend only after several previous warnings…
“I’d like to believe there was a way to do that,” Edwards said. “Our experience here wasn’t good with that. It wasn’t good around the country. ... We know right now, when we have high incidence levels around the state and positivity of more than 10% around the state, that now is not the time to do that.”
The surge in Louisiana has caused the White House Coronavirus Task force to advise the state to enact harsher restrictions. For several weeks, the task force has recommended Louisiana roll back indoor dining to 25% from the current 50% rule, lessen the social gathering limit from 50 to 10 and take other steps to limit the spread of the virus, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
Edwards appears unlikely to enact new restrictions in the near-term. Christina Stephens, an Edwards spokeswoman, said the administration is waiting to see the effects of the bar closure and mask mandate issued around two weeks ago, before putting new restrictions in place.
The governor, a Democrat who has struck a conciliatory relationship with the Trump administration, indicated he wouldn’t roll back indoor dining rules largely because restaurants are required to practice social distancing regardless. Even if the state rolled back the capacity, he said not much would change.
However, Edwards and Fire Marshal Butch Browning did crack down on businesses for violating the existing rules for the first time Monday.
Browning’s office suspended the licenses of four businesses – Sand Dollar Tiki Bar in Grand Isle; Wo-de's Chill Spot, Harvey; Frosty Factory, Lake Charles; and Pelican Pub, in Gonzales – after what he said were violations “so severe” the state had to cite them. The establishments had complaints of large gatherings or serving customers alcohol indoors. Bars have been ordered closed since mid-July.
Louisiana has for months taken a hands-off approach to enforcing the state’s rules. After going on more than 5,000 visits to businesses, and finding hundreds of violations, Browning confirmed the four suspensions made Monday were the first penalties issued to date.
Instead, Browning said he has tried to gain compliance by businesses by informing them of the rules, largely with success. Only about 14 businesses currently have “two strikes,” he said, adding his office has a “three strikes” policy. The four businesses that had their licenses pulled, pending hearings next week, had three strikes, he said.
“We obviously have tried to be very patient. We’ve tried to get compliance. ... But there obviously have been violations that are repeated enough or flagrant enough that you just have to take serious action,” Edwards said.
Aside from going back to Phase 1 of reopening or a statewide stay-at-home order, Edwards said he believes there is only one way to tamp down cases: mandating masks and closing bars, which he did earlier this month.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force agrees with that assessment, according to Edwards, with Dr. Birx reaffirming the message in a call Tuesday. Documents sent from the task force to Edwards’ office have recommended for several weeks the state mandate masks in hot spots, which Edwards’ administration says covers the entire state given high incidence levels of the virus.
Before the most recent restrictions, the White House recommendations led to new rules in Louisiana, with officials following the task force’s lead, documents show.
On June 29, the task force started recommending that the state “consider mandating mask use and closing bars” if cases continue to rise in Baton Rouge; a few days later, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome issued a mask mandate for the city and parts of the parish.
On July 5, the Task Force recommended Louisiana “require cloth mask usage in highly affected areas experiencing increases in cases.” Less than a week later, Edwards mandated masks and closed bars statewide.
Louisiana has also ramped up testing considerably in July, though the surge in cases can’t solely be explained by increased testing, because of rising rates of positivity levels. Edwards said the state has conducted nearly 550,000 tests, blowing the state’s 200,000-tests-a-month goal out of the water.
And New Orleans will soon get a federal surge testing site, starting at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena, where people can drive through and get a free test, regardless of whether they have symptoms or came into contact with someone who is positive. That type of testing center came to Baton Rouge recently, though far fewer people took advantage than officials hoped. While the sites had 60,000 tests available, only 46,265 people have gotten tests this month through the sites, Edwards said.
The governor also expressed concern about the state's dwindling unemployment trust fund, which could lead to a new charge on employers. The $600-a-week additional federal unemployment benefit for jobless people is expiring this week, and while Edwards said the $200 replacement put forth by Republicans in Congress is not enough, he did not say whether he believes $600 a week, pushed by Democrats in Congress, is appropriate.
Read the White House recommendations here:
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.