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State licensing officials authorized East Baton Rouge and West Baton Rouge parish bars, daiquiri shops and other alcohol establishments to reopen Wednesday, less than an hour after new data showed the parishes had met state health benchmarks, parish officials said.

For East Baton Rouge parish, the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control acted on Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's anticipatory request to reopen, which she sent to the state officials on Monday in expectation of Wednesday's new statistics on the spread of the novel coronavirus in the parish.

Broome promised to "begin working with businesses in our area to open as quickly as possible."

"My administration has followed all of the recommendations from ATC to ease restrictions, which business can now implement immediately," Broome said in a statement Wednesday. "This is a result of the hard work our citizens have put in over the last few months to slow the spread of COVID-19."

The Metro Council plans to gather 4 p.m. Wednesday in a special meeting to consider whether to endorse Broome's decision two days ago to seek to reopen bars if health benchmarks were met. In other parishes that have met those benchmarks, local councils have left the decision to opt in to Phase 3 to their parish presidents.

The ATC also authorized bars to reopen in West Baton Rouge Parish, according to the parish president's office.

100120 Bars Opening By Parish

Dropping positivity rates will open the door for more parishes in Louisiana to have their bars reopened. This map shows the status of parishes as of Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Two more parishes in the Baton Rouge area joined East and West Baton Rouge parishes on Wednesday in meeting the state benchmarks that would allow them to reopen bars: East Feliciana and Pointe Coupee.

In East Feliciana Parish, Police Jury President Louis Kent wasn't immediately available Wednesday to say if his parish would be opting in to Phase 3 so bars can reopen.

Joseph Moreau, parish homeland security director, said his parish numbers are good enough to start allow bars to reopen and also allowing nursing homes to receive guests.

"We're definitely planning on opting in," Moreau said.

He noted that without the impact of large congregant facilities in the parish, which have had the rash of cases and deaths, East Feliciana could have reopened bars even sooner.

Under Gov. John Bel Edwards' Phase 3 rules, parishes with 5% or less test positivity over two consecutive weeks can seek to have their bars reopen for on-premises alcohol consumption.

Before bars, daiquiri shops and breweries can allow on-premises alcohol consumption, however, the parishes must opt-in with the state ATC after they have hit the two-week benchmark to trigger the reopening of bars. 

Broome issued her "opt-in" letter in advance after city-parish officials assessed the direction the data were headed, but she also warned residents on Wednesday that opening bars doesn't mean residents should let up on the social distancing and masking practices that have gotten the parish this far.

"If we want to keep moving forward to return to some sense of normalcy, I implore everyone to visit these establishments with a commitment to wear masks and properly social distance,” she said.

Broome is battling a congested field of contenders this fall for a second term as business groups and many conservatives have decried the restrictions that the state's viral protections have placed on economic activity in the state. 

With the looser rules, bars and other alcohol-serving establishments can operate with table service at 25% capacity with up to 50 patrons until 11 p.m. Other restrictions also apply.

The positivity rate shows the share of positive tests in a given batch of testing.

Health experts say the percentage is one measure of viral spread but also an indicator of the penetration of testing efforts into the community. All things being equal, increased testing should lead to lower positivity rates as long as the rate of viral spread isn't increasing.

All four parishes in the Baton Rouge area that met the two-week state standard Wednesday had positivity marks of less than 5% for the weeklong period of Sept. 10 to 16.

New positivity data made public Wednesday for the period of Sept. 17 to 23 showed those four parishes had sub-5% positivity again and all four saw that rate drop in the latest week compared with the prior week's data. 

In East Baton Rouge Parish, for example, positivity was 4.1% for the week of Sept. 10 to 16 and 3.1% for Sept. 17 to 23.

Pointe Coupee Parish saw its rate drop the lowest among the four parishes in the Baton Rouge area newly eligible for bar re-openings, falling from 3.9% to 2.4% week to week.

Iberville Parish, which hit the two-week threshold last week and was granted authorization to reopen bars on Friday, saw its positivity rate fall further, dropping from 4.2% to 2.3% week to week in the latest data.

Under state rules, parishes that have reopened bars and then had positivity rates rise back up must close bars again if that rate surpasses 10% for two consecutive weeks. Bars can't reopen until rates come back down at or below the 5% threshold for another two consecutive weeks.

The state Department of Health publishes weekly positivity percentages only on Wednesdays and has a one-week lag in its reporting. 

The department also publishes raw data daily on its website, from which parish-level positivity percentages can be calculated, but health and ATC officials said it is the positivity percentages published weekly and displayed on a map inside a statewide online dashboard that must be used to determine if bars in a parish can reopen.

In the 12-parish Baton Rouge area, only Iberville had been able to reopen before Wednesday's data. The west bank parish received authorization from the ATC on Friday along with four other parishes in Louisiana, including Jefferson and Lafayette parishes.

St. James Parish gets, then loses approval to open bars amid confusion over testing numbers

Orleans Parish had previously fallen below the necessary positivity thresholds but Mayor LaToya Cantrell has kept the parish in Phase 2.   

At LSU, White House coronavirus leader Deborah Birx urges people to keep wearing masks and distancing


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.