Hours after saying St. James Parish bars could re-open Friday for the first time since a summer shutdown spurred by the coronavirus, the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control reversed that decision.
Parish officials had announced Friday morning they met the health criteria for the state’s Phase 3 bar rules and would be seeking to “opt in” with the office. One of those criteria is that the parish must have a test positivity rate of 5% or less.
St. James seemed to get confirmation it could re-open bars soon afterward from ATC Commissioner Ernest Legier Jr. But, amid questions about whether the parish actually met the requirements — and after conferring with the Health Department Friday evening — Legier sent a message to parish officials at 6:23 p.m. taking back the authorization.
It's not clear what led to the breakdown in communication between Legier, the Department of Health and the parish. But, at 5:42 p.m. Friday — responding to questions from The Advocate about whether St. James met the governor's rules — a health department spokeswoman said St. James Parish “does not meet the criteria.”
“It is not eligible to opt in,” to reopening bars, department spokeswoman Alyson Neel said.
That conclusion caught Legier by surprise when called by a reporter minutes later Friday.
“No one contacted me, but I’ll verify that,” Legier said. “We’ll take appropriate action if that’s the case.”
A message rescinding his order soon followed to St. James Parish officials. He apologized for the oversight.
"State agencies are working diligently to allow businesses to operate as soon as safely possible," Legier said in the message Friday. "In this case, it appears that our coordination process fell short of expectations."
Parish officials couldn't say Friday evening if or how many bars had reopened under the now-rescinded order.
Under Phase 3, bars and some other alcohol-serving establishments, like daiquiri shops, can operate with table service at 25% capacity with up to 50 patrons until 11 p.m. Other restrictions also apply.
But bars can only re-open if their parish has two consecutive weeks of 5% positivity or less. That is the percentage of positive cases in a given batch of tests.
Health experts say it is one way to measure the level of viral spread in a community and also the level of testing.
The latest figures from the state show St. James had just barely missed having a positivity rate of 5% or less over the most currently available two-week period as defined by the state. The state counts rates from each Thursday to the next Wednesday and has about a one-week lag in reporting positivity data.
It would have been possible for the parish to have met the criteria by calculating the rate using different consecutive days or including more recent case and test data not yet compiled by the state and published online.
The parish had a positivity rate of 5.1% for the week of Aug. 27 to Sept. 2 — just over the 5% threshold — and then 0.8% for the week of Sept. 3 to Sept. 9, the Department of Health website says.
A generous reading of the state benchmark of 5% or less might arguably suggest that any positivity rate below 5.5% could be rounded to down to 5% — meaning that St. James had met the two-week cutoff under the current data.
The state also has not reported a weekly positivity rate since Sept. 9, but St. James has had six more cases of the virus detected from 459 tests between Sept. 10 and 16, for a rough positivity rate of 1.3% over those seven days, according to state case and testing data.
That calculation, however, is based on when cases are reported and not when tests are taken, so the figure doesn't exactly match up with the way the state calculates its weekly positivity data.
An update isn't expected from state health officials until next Wednesday.
State officials did not fully explain Friday how they were applying positivity data to determine St. James was not eligible.
But Neel did say that the agency doesn’t “round” numbers, “which could have been the confusion.”
St. James Parish Council members had asked Parish President Pete Dufresne on Wednesday night in Convent to look into whether the parish had reached a low-enough positivity rate for the virus to reopen bars.
On Friday morning, Dufresne said that since the council meeting on Wednesday, parish homeland security officials had determined that the parish's positivity rate had fallen below 5% for 14 consecutive days.
At Dufresne's request, parish officials and municipal officials in Gramercy and Lutcher had opted in to Phase 3 that day.
Amber Shepherd, spokeswoman for the parish, declined Friday night to comment about Legier’s rescinding of his earlier letter, which he acknowledged “was in error.”
Before the Department of Health’s evening announcement about St. James, state health officials had suggested late Friday afternoon that it was up to the ATC or the State Fire Marshal’s Office to make the analytical judgment about virus data, which the Department of Health collects, maintains and publishes online.
When asked about that claim, ATC officials and those with the State Fire Marshal’s Office pointed right back to the Health Department, saying they had no role in analyzing the department’s information.
Legier said his office receives "opt-in" letters from local municipalities but said it was "absolutely an LDH function" to crunch numbers to determine local positivity rates.
"We don't have the capability to even begin that analysis," Legier said.
Ashley Rodrigue, spokeswoman for the fire marshal, said her state office does not have access to the health department's data nor knows how that agency calculates positivity rates.
"We get it like everybody else, off their website," Rodrigue said.
St. Charles parish also was authorized to reopen bars on Friday. Four other parishes in the state have already opted in to Phase 3 and been approved to allow bars and other establishments have limited on-premises alcohol consumption: St. Landry and Acadia parishes on Wednesday and Plaquemines and Jefferson Davis parishes on Thursday, Legier said Friday.