The Ascension Parish Council will revert to virtual public meetings for the foreseeable future and canceled an in-person meeting planned for Thursday night after someone who attended meetings held inside the council chambers earlier this week tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Parish officials said the person was at meetings for Parish Council committees and the parish School Board held inside the council chambers at the Courthouse Annex in Gonzales on Monday and Tuesday.

Parish officials did not identify the person. It's not known whether the person is a public official, government employee or member of the public.

"In an abundance of caution, the Parish Officials feel that it is in the best interests of both the public and our parish employees to postpone the meeting tonight and hold this meeting virtually on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 6 p.m.," the statement says.

Parish officials cited a section of Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive order on social distancing that allows any political subdivision in the state to "further extend any non-essential deadline for a period of no longer than 30 days if deemed necessary to respond to the threat of COVID-19."

The Parish Council has been holding in-person meetings since the state eased social distancing restrictions. Those meetings have been held both in Gonzales and at the Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville. 

Parish officials have taken some measures to ensure social distancing in the meeting rooms. That includes creating 6 feet of separation for people sitting in the meeting room pews and erecting Plexiglas barriers between each member's seat at the dais.

Parish officials have also limited the number of people allowed in the meeting spaces. 

But, in several of these meetings, including the council transportation and utilities committee meetings held Monday, many council members, parish officials and audience members have not worn masks or other face coverings.

When asked if the parish will revisit its mask procedures in light of the positive test, Martin McConnell, parish spokesman, said Thursday that all meetings will be virtual until further notice, so the mask question isn't an issue at the present time. 

He said the parish will address the usage of masks and face coverings whenever the parish resumes in-person meetings.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has required business employees who deal directly with the public to wear face coverings — the parish has followed the same rules — but has not made that a requirement of the general public, only strongly urging people do so in enclosed settings when they're not with their immediate family.

After initially not recommending wearing facial coverings as the outbreak was reaching the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since strongly recommended mask wearing after more evidence of asymptomatic spread of the virus became clear.

A fast-tracked version of a peer-reviewed analysis in Health Affairs looked the effect of requiring community-wide wearing of masks and found that in 15 states and the District of Columbia that issued such orders. The study found growth in new cases in those states fell by 2% at least 21 days after the order was issued. 

Another study funded by the World Health Organization and published in the Lancet, a peer-review medical journal, looked at 172 studies from 16 countries and six continents. Without a mask, the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus is 17.4%, the study found. With an N95 mask, the risk falls to 3.1%. Other kinds of face coverings were also found to be effective but not as much as N95 masks.

In addition to the canceled council meeting, parish officials announced on Monday that public access to the parish building and permits office will be closed to visitors until further notice. Parish and state health officials have refused to provide any additional information on the reasons for this closure. 

Council meetings are broadcast live on Ascension21 on EATEL and Cox cable, and on the Parish YouTube Channel.

People who wish to comment may send an email to comments@apgov.us up to 24 hours before the meeting. The email will be read into the official record at the meeting.

The meeting will also be open to people who wish to comment live by calling (225) 621-8636 and entering participation code 939496. Speakers are limited to agenda items only.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.