The Louisiana Legislature suspended its annual lawmaking session for two weeks Monday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the latest in a series of dramatic measures taken by state leaders to slow a rising tide of cases in the state.

The Louisiana House voted 100-1 to adjourn until March 31 at 11 a.m. amid the coronavirus outbreak. The Senate then approved the resolution on a 35-0 vote. 

“This is a step of caution for this body, for the staff and for the people of Louisiana,” said state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, who handled the resolution on the floor.

Freshman Rep. Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles, voted against resolution saying legislators should stay on the job, particularly under the circumstances. Adjourning temporarily would be the wrong message to send to citizens, he said.

Bishop responded that in all his years as a legislator, he "never, ever" had to wear a sticker indicating that his temperature was low enough to enter the State Capitol as he and everyone else did on Monday.

"Nothing is more important than the safety and welfare of each and every Louisiana citizen," said House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez. 

Eleven legislatures around the country have temporarily adjourned their sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The reason we made this decision had to do with the fact that we have a lot of members of the general public come to the State Capitol,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, told senators. He likened the decision to the state ordering restaurants to suspend service in their dining rooms, but allow take-out to continue, as a way of limiting people from being exposed to the sometimes lethal virus that spreads through community interaction long before symptoms are evident.

Throughout the day, as legislative leadership met behind closed doors, lawmakers wondered how the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would get written and approved with the session suspended. Cortez told senators as they packed to leave, to continue working from their homes and be ready to work hard when they return at the end of the month. "We still have plenty of time to complete the business that we came here to do," he said.

The leaders are encouraging lawmakers to work via email and telephone in the meantime to work out issues with legislation so they can be addressed when the Legislature reconvenes. The session is scheduled to end June 1. 

The suspension was planned the same day new restrictions were implemented at the State Capitol to screen entrants’ temperatures and limit the amount of people in hearings, and as a statewide shutdown of K-12 public schools went into effect.

The timing reflected the rapidly-evolving nature of the pandemic, which Louisiana officials have labeled a crisis, especially for the hot spot of New Orleans. A long list of advocacy organizations and health officials had called on lawmakers to suspend the session Monday as lawmakers returned to Baton Rouge to continue conducting business.

“It’s hard to do the people’s business when this is such a big problem and concern,” said state Rep. Barry Ivey, a Central Republican. “If you’re going to just focus on essential bills, what does that look like?”

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When the Legislature convened a week ago, Louisiana still had not discovered a case of the coronavirus. As Gov. John Bel Edwards was preparing his state of the state address shortly after the Legislature gaveled into session, officials discovered the first case.

As of Monday morning, Louisiana had 114 cases across 10 parishes. Two people in the New Orleans area — a 53-year-old and a 58-year-old — had died from the coronavirus, or COVID-19. A third person was reported to have died by Monday evening.

Edwards last week shuttered all K-12 public schools statewide for a month and banned gatherings of 250 people or more, staggering restrictions that indicated officials are concerned the spread of the virus could overwhelm health systems unless severe steps are taken to limit face-to-face interaction.

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As lawmakers returned to the Capitol Monday, officials used a no-touch thermometer to take the temperature of entrants and giving a sticker to anyone whose temperature was under 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Signs plastered at entrances told anyone with a fever, cough or shortness of breath to "DO NOT ENTER." 

Every other seat in committee rooms was blocked off with yellow caution tape to limit close contact between attendees. Crews wearing orange vests stood in the hallways with mops, antibacterial wipes, bleach and other cleaning products waiting for committee hearings to finish and the people to leave so they could start the daily deep cleaning the room. Most of the conversation among legislators was about personal experiences involving coronavirus and speculating about leadership meetings taking place behind closed doors until Schexnayder and Cortez announced their decision to adjourn temporarily.

As committee hearings took place Monday morning, more than two dozen advocacy groups called on the Legislature to suspend the session for a month. Former Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Rebekah Gee called on lawmakers to suspend the session and said continuing to have folks congregate in Baton Rouge "is sending mixed messages to the public." 

New Orleans state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the chair of the state's Democratic Party, declined to attend the session and called on lawmakers to end their work temporarily. 

"Tired of explaining to people who should be paying attention and looking out for the masses why we shouldn’t be convening on nonurgent matters," Peterson tweeted. "Just sad they won’t follow the recommendations of the health care professionals."

Mark Ballard, Tyler Bridges and Will Sentell of Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com