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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards smiles, after a reporter's request for details after Edwards said there would be few given, at a press conference on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 announcing that Louisiana would be going in to Phase 3 coronavirus restrictions on Friday. 'You want me to give you something? The mask mandate will stay in place,' he said. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate, AP)

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday restaurants, businesses and churches can operate at 75% of capacity under Phase 3 for the reopening of Louisiana's economy but bars will only re-open under tight restrictions.

Edwards also said whether the three-day Labor Day weekend triggers a boost in coronavirus cases is his top concern, especially since the state saw a hike in infections after Memorial Day.

"It is my hope that behavior was different because everybody went through that process," he said of what happened after Memorial Day. "They saw what it did to the state."

The new capacity rules for restaurants, businesses and other operations is up from 50% under Phase 2 and stems from improving numbers in all nine regions of the state.

"COVID-like illness has been on a steady decline," said Dr. Alex Billioux, the top coronavirus response official in the Edwards administration, who is leaving his post at the end of the month.

Both the imposition of a statewide order to wear masks in public and the closing of bars statewide were major contributors, Billioux said.

The state rate for positive cases of the coronavirus is 6.97%, he said, which is well below the 10% benchmark for trouble.

Billioux echoed Edwards' concerns on whether the Labor Day weekend will spark problems.

"Hopefully what we find is that everybody by and large did what we asked," he said.

Bars can only start serving again in parishes that show a positivity rate of 5 percent or less for two consecutive weeks, and if the local governing authority – presumably the mayor – opts to do so. Parishes that meet the threshold today are Orleans, St. John the Baptist, Jefferson Davis, Plaquemines and Bienville.

Even then bars can only operate at 25% of capacity up to 50 patrons; table service only and with a ban on those under 21 from entering.

New Orleans officials could not be reached for comment Friday. However, since the city plans to remain in its version of Phase 2 bar reopenings are unlikely.

Parishes where bars re-open, then show positivity rates for the virus of 10% or more, will be closed again.

"This is the system we have come up with to do this safely and responsibly, with a good measure of local control over that," Edwards said.

Officials said the plan for bars is based on recommendations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force amid increases in cases among young people in college towns.

The next parish-by-parish update on positivity rates is set for Sept. 16, with regular updates every two weeks.

The governor announced Thursday that the state would be moving to Phase 3, one day before his Phase 2 order expired, but delayed spelling out details until Friday.

The latest order is for 28 days, until Oct. 9.

However, Edwards has made clear he will reimpose restrictions if there are signs that cases are on the rise again.

The fact that coronavirus tests in southwest Louisiana have plummeted because of Hurricane Laura is another concern, especially with about 13,000 evacuees huddled in hotels around the state and about 4,800 at hotels in Texas.

"If we see a spike in cases, we may be forced to go back to a more restrictive Phase 2," Edwards said in a statement that accompanied the seven-page proclamation spelling out the new rules.

"We don't go from 75% to 100% until the pandemic is over," he told reporters. "That is what I need people to understand."

Phase 3 also means that alcohol sales at all venues will end at 10 p.m.

Sports events will be limited to 25% of capacity, with social distancing required and no alcohol.

Those limits will be in place when LSU hosts Mississippi State on Sept. 26.

Indoor gatherings. like weddings and birthday parties, can operate with 50% capacity up to 250 people.

Live music will still not be allowed indoors.

The 75% capacity also applies to salons, spas and gyms.

Casinos will remain at 50% of capacity and 75% of their gaming positions.

The governor said there will be no change in the ban on nursing home visitations. Patients in both Louisiana and nationally account for a major portion of deaths from the coronavirus.

Edwards said the state Department of Health is working on a pilot project that would allow outdoor visits to nursing homes, also in parishes with positivity rates of five percent or less.

"This is obviously a very delicate situation," he said. "The folks in the Department of Health are putting forth great effort to make sure we can do this is in a sensible way."

 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.