Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday the state will have to overcome key hurdles by May 1 to qualify for the initial phase of reopening Louisiana's economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that doing so is feasible.

"You don't even get to Phase 1 until you meet certain thresholds that we have not met," Edwards told reporters.

One of the first challenges, he said, is controlling the growth of positive tests for the virus over a 14-day period.

The governor repeatedly said his stay-at-home order and other mitigation measures need to be followed to prevent a deadly spike in cases.

He also said the state needs more robust testing for the virus.

"We have a lot of work to do," Edwards said. "That is just where we are today."

He added, "We are going to move forward as fast as we can using a balanced approach."

The governor said it is too soon to tell if the state will be ready for the initial lifting of restrictions by May 1 but added, "I hope we do."

Edwards made his comments after touring the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the mostly deserted LSU campus, where workers are producing hard-to-find gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer.

By next week, he said, the group will be churning out 1,000 gowns per day.

The governor said the work is even more gratifying than the celebration of the football national championship amid an overflow crowd at the PMAC earlier this year.

"I truly appreciate that," he said of the work creating personal protective equipment. "What is going on here really does epitomize teamwork."

Among those on hand for the tour were LSU Interim President Tom Galligan, the law school dean who taught Edwards a class in 1997, and Athletic Director Scott Woodward.

President Donald J. Trump on Thursday announced plans to re-start the U.S. economy in three phases, with governors having the final word on any rollouts in their states since the spread of the virus varies nationwide.

Edwards said Louisiana has been hit harder than any states except New York and New Jersey and noted that, for a time, the growth of positive tests for the virus in Louisiana was tops in the world.

The governor said officials have to be especially careful that any initial steps to ease access to businesses and restaurants do not backfire in a state heavily dependent on tourism, especially in New Orleans.

"When we do that it won't be like flipping a light switch," he said.

Grocery store workers will likely be wearing face masks, he said, as well as waiters at restaurants with newly-positioned tables to maintain social distancing.

"This is just part of the new normal," he said.

Edwards also repeated his pledge that elective hospital procedures will be a top priority for any reopening of the economy, especially since if those procedures are delayed too long problems surface.

Until a vaccine is found for the virus, Edwards said, "we are going to have a different way of life."

"We just have to be patient in the interim."

Even a football game in Tiger Stadium – assuming the 2020 season unfolds on schedule – is likely to look different, Edwards said. 

"But that may be more aspirational than anything else," he said of football talk.

Edwards said college and other sports in the U.S. will benefit from the experience in other nations that resume sporting events before the fall.

The Louisiana Department of Health on Friday reported 586 new cases of the virus, boosting the total to 23,118.

Deaths rose by 57, to 1,213.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 – the illness caused by the virus – is 1,868, down by 46 from the day before.

Those on ventilators totaled 363 patients, 33 less than the day before.

"That is very encouraging," Edwards said. "We have flattened the curve."

The governor's stay-at-home order, which applies to all but "essential" workers, lasts through April 30.

A handful of state Republican lawmakers have said Edwards needs to accelerate the reopening of Louisiana's economy, especially amid skyrocketing unemployment rolls here and nationally.

Protesters at the Governor's Mansion on Friday urged Edwards to immediately lift restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the virus.

"We have 4.7 million people in Louisiana," Edwards said. "We are not always going to agree on everything."

The governor noted that his directive stem from a public health emergency.

"That is not something they (protesters) have to worry about."  


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.