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Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during his weekly press conference regarding the spread of coronavirus in the state, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Amid spiraling coronavirus infections and steadily-increasing hospitalizations, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Saturday said he is issuing a statewide mask mandate and closing bars, making Louisiana the latest Southern state to ratchet restrictions back up after months of reopening.

Starting Monday, people will be required to wear masks when entering establishments or outdoors if they cannot be at least six feet away from others, and bars will have to revert back to "to-go" service.

The decision comes on the heels of similar mask mandates in several of the state’s largest metro areas, including East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Orleans parishes, along with neighboring states Texas and Mississippi. While the governor had previously said he would leave that to local officials, and that he was focused on gaining compliance with the existing rules, he said Saturday increasing numbers of cases and the advice of public health officials convinced him otherwise.

Businesses can be fined up to $500 for violating the governor’s executive order, if they are found allowing customers or staff in their establishment without wearing masks. If patrons refuse to wear a mask and refuse to leave the business, they can be cited for trespassing.

But Edwards became animated when asked about enforcement, insisting the state will not succeed in slowing the spread of the virus if people rely on the state to crack down on violators. He said it’s not the state’s “goal” to write tickets.

“If you don’t like the mask mandate, then don’t like it. But wear your mask anyway if you’re going to be out in public,” Edwards said.

“If you want to criticize me, criticize me. This isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s hard. And I understand it’s going to be controversial. And I know that there are already wild and crazy things being said about masks and mask mandates. But so be it. It's the right thing to do.”

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The order will also shrink the state’s limit on social gatherings, like wedding receptions, from 250 people to 50 people. The order also allows parishes to opt out of the face mask mandate, if they have a low incidence of coronavirus, though only three rural parishes currently are able to opt out: Grant, Red River and West Feliciana parishes.

There are a few exemptions for the face covering mandate. People don’t need to wear them if they have a medical condition that makes it unsafe, though officials said those people shouldn’t be out and about regardless. If people are consuming food or drink, trying to communicate with a person who is hearing impaired, delivering a speech or taking the mask off temporarily to identify themselves, they are exempt. Business owners can take a person’s word for it if they say they have a condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering.

Restaurants will still be able to offer indoor dining and serve alcohol, and other businesses will not be affected by the order. But bars have come under particularly heightened scrutiny among public health experts, and Edwards said they have proved to be “hotspots” for the virus.

Louisiana’s contract tracing has lagged, but data released by the state Health Department last week showed bars were at the top of the list for outbreaks, next to food processing plants. The 36 outbreaks and 393 cases the state has traced to bars include a high-profile outbreak of more than 100 cases at Baton Rouge’s Tigerland bars.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who has implemented some stricter measures like a 25-person gathering limit, cheered the news. She echoed Edwards’ comments that they would help prevent the state from needing to reverse the reopening further. The announcement also came the same day St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper announced he would do a mask mandate.

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Edwards was flanked by several public health experts Saturday for the announcement. Dr. Joseph Kanter, medical director at the Health Department’s Region 1, for the greater New Orleans area, said the agency is worried that while young people have contracted the virus in greater numbers in the most recent surge, older and sicker people are contracting the virus. That’s driving hospitalizations up--they are currently at the highest point since May 14--and Kanter said it can be expected to lead to a later surge in deaths.

“At the end of the day this is about the preservation of human life,” Kanter said. “It’s as simple as that.”

“We have to turn this around,” he added.

Louisiana was an early hot spot for the virus, seeing some of the fastest growth in cases in the world for a period. That surge was primarily centered around the New Orleans area.

Now, the rocketing case numbers aren’t being driven by New Orleans, but instead the new hot spots of Lake Charles, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, among others, though New Orleans recently has seen worsening numbers. The federal government has taken notice, setting up 5,000-tests-a-day surge sites in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence is slated to visit Baton Rouge this week to discuss the coronavirus and reopening of schools.

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Louisiana’s mask mandate and bar closure puts the state in line with other southern states that have seen recent surges. The Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi made similar mask mandates. Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, also effectively shuttered bars.

Edwards, a Democrat, has faced resistance from Republican state lawmakers on coronavirus restrictions. A group of conservatives are even trying to end all of the restrictions currently in place through a petition.

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Edwards said he spoke with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans, about his planned order. A day earlier, Schexnayder sent a message to Republican members warning them of dire consequences if they move forward with the petition, including potentially loss of federal aid.

In the state’s first spike, in March and April, officials were so worried hospitals would be overrun that Edwards spent more than $165 million building a temporary hospital facility at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, in New Orleans, though it went mostly unused.

The state is not yet threatening capacity at most hospitals, but Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, said that hospital has seen patients in the hospital quadruple recently, a “massive increase” in admissions that was unexpected.

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“Now we are overwhelmed,” O'Neal said. “We have too many people in the hospitals. Our hospitals are full.”

Other hospital leaders have said they’re not yet seeing dramatic surges that would threaten capacity. But Edwards has said he will put more restrictions in place if the state approaches that point.

Dr. Rani Whitfield, a well-known Baton Rouge physician, said people “got a little complacent and thought things were okay.” He urged people to “play their part” and practice social distancing, wash their hands and wear masks.

“We’re truly concerned about overwhelming the health care system as it exists today,” he said.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com