Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is pausing the state's reopening, keeping the current Phase 2 rules in place for an additional 28 days in an effort to get a handle on spikes in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that have alarmed health officials.

The move will keep the current level of restrictions in place until at least July 24, limiting occupancy at most establishments – like retailers, casinos, barber shops, restaurants, bars with food service and others – to 50%. Bars without food are limited to 25% capacity and a handful of businesses, like amusement parks and carnivals, are still closed.

After seeing cases and hospitalizations rise sharply in some areas in recent days, health officials consulted by Edwards recommended he halt the reopening to try to tamp down the caseload, and the Democratic governor agreed. He said the state would also step up enforcement of social distancing rules at businesses after taking a hands-off approach through the first month of reopening.

“There are a lot of people out there saying they’re done with the virus,” Edwards said. “Well, the virus isn’t done with us.”

Edwards is expected to issue a renewed proclamation Thursday ahead of the Phase 2 order expiring. The order will largely mirror what is currently in place.

Outbreaks tied to Tigerland bars near LSU and graduation parties in the New Orleans area have emerged in recent days amid the rising coronavirus numbers, and officials specifically called on young people to do a better job adhering to precautions. While many young people experience no symptoms or mild symptoms, state officials said some do, and more importantly, young people can easily spread the virus to parents, grandparents and others who are more susceptible.

After pleading with people and businesses to do better adhering to restrictions in recent weeks, Edwards said Monday the state will turn to more enforcement. The state has not shuttered any establishments for breaking the rules so far, he said, but that could change.

Instead of waiting until the state receives complaints, Edwards said workers will go on proactive trips to businesses. If they don’t fix whatever problems the state finds, Edwards said revoking permits “certainly would be an option for us.”

The governor said he had no immediate plans to reverse the reopening and institute more restrictions. But he said that is on the table if the state starts to approach levels of hospitalizations that could overwhelm hospitals.

“That is something that could happen if we don't get back on top of this and reverse the most recent trends we’re seeing,” he said, adding, “we are going to be more active now.”

The decision comes as the state experiences rising cases and hospitalizations, in some regions at levels that have alarmed state officials.

The Louisiana Department of Health has presented the results of “gating criteria” based on White House guidance for reopening before each reopening decision. The presentation made Monday showed rising cases statewide along with plateauing numbers of COVID-19-like illnesses and hospitalizations. The White House suggests states experience 14 days of declines in all three categories to reopen.

In recent weeks, the state has seen cases rise as total testing has dipped slightly. While the greater New Orleans Region has fared better than others, it is still seeing rising cases and COVID-19-like illnesses. Baton Rouge is seeing rising cases and plateauing COVID-like illnesses. Acadiana is among those seeing a dramatic surge in new cases, and is increasing in all three categories.

The spikes are outpacing increased testing levels, officials said, after previously using testing to explain a rising caseload.

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said the agency’s “strong recommendation” to the governor was to remain in Phase 2.

Billioux also said the state has not yet conclusively answered the question of what share of the population has been exposed to the virus and therefore may have immunity. In order for “herd immunity” – where infection levels are high enough to stamp out the virus’s spread – at least 60% of the population needs to develop antibodies.

Some serology surveys will soon be released in Louisiana, Billioux said, and he indicated the results will show what similar studies across the world have shown--rates of infections are below 10%, nowhere near the levels needed for herd immunity. That means “the vast majority of us are susceptible” to the virus.

Louisiana began its phased reopening May 15, the date Edwards ended the stay-at-home order that had been in place since late March. The state experienced one of the fastest rises in cases in March and April, sparking concerns that hospitals would run out of beds and ventilators for patients.

After seeing a dramatic rise and almost equally dramatic fall in new cases and other metrics, the first phase of reopening allowed a limited number of businesses operate at 25% capacity. Phase 2, which began June 5, opened more businesses and told businesses that remain closed they can submit plans to state regulators to possibly open in phase two or three.

Edwards has not yet revealed what phase three would entail. White House guidance for reopening--which Louisiana has largely followed--calls for "unrestricted staffing" of worksites, resuming visits to senior facilities and hospitals, opening of large venues like sit-down dining and movie theaters to "limited physical distancing protocols" and increased standing room occupancy at bars, among other things.

Currently, bars are prohibited under the rules from allowing standing room occupancy, and instead are supposed to have customers seated at tables, like restaurants.

But it’s clear not all bars are adhering to those rules, and several around the LSU area have shut down on their own after outbreaks.

The governor suggested people may be going into bars “having every intention” of practicing social distancing.

“But one of the things that alcohol does is it impairs your judgement over time,” Edwards said, “and so if they stay there long enough and have enough to drink, there’s a chance that they don’t end up following the mitigation measures as well as they’d planned to.”


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com