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Newly elected West Feliciana Parish President Kenny Havard signs his official commission before taking the oath of office Monday from retired 18th Judicial District Judge Jack Marionneaux, right. Havard was elected Nov. 6 and succeeds Kevin Couhig, who retired on Monday. An election to fill Havard’s legislative seat is set for Feb. 23.

In a departure from the state’s stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus outbreak, West Feliciana Parish will soon allow diners to eat in at restaurants, worshippers to return to church and libraries and museums to have visitors as long as they limit their capacity.

Parish leaders announced Wednesday they plan to loosen restrictions that have been in place since March. They say the parish is ready to reopen because of its low case count.

“What fits in New Orleans and Baton Rouge doesn’t fit us here,” said Parish President Kenny Havard. “We’re just asking people to use common sense.”

After meeting with restaurants this week, Havard said, they will have the option to resume table service as long as they limit their capacity to 25% and workers wear masks and gloves. People will also be allowed to visit libraries and museums, which will also be subject to similar rules and occupancy limits.

Houses of worship will be allowed to resume services but will be required to follow federal social distancing guidelines, such as wearing masks and remaining 6 feet apart from others.

Stores, banks, restaurants, museums, libraries, churches and all public buildings are also required to post signs warning that people over age 65 and those with underlying medical conditions are especially vulnerable to the virus.

Older adults have made up the largest share of fatal cases in Louisiana, as well as those with chronic health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

Health experts criticized the parish’s plans to allow certain activities to restart, saying the parish is undermining the state's efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which could cause more cases in the Baton Rouge region.

More than 110 people in West Feliciana Parish have tested positive for the respiratory illness COVID-19, and three have died, according to the latest figures from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Havard said the vast majority of those cases were reported at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which has also been housing inmates from local jails when they contract the virus. He said only about 13 residents living in the community have contracted the virus between April 13 and 26.

Nevertheless, Tulane University epidemiologist Susan Hassig said it isn't safe for the parish to open yet. The parish needs widespread contact tracing, which means identifying those who are sick or who have been exposed to someone who has been sick and requiring them to quarantine for two weeks.

Hassig said far more parish residents likely have the disease than official testing counts show. That's because many people didn't get tested and many don’t develop symptoms even though they have the virus. 

“It is potentially harmful to his parish to be taking these steps, especially because they are so out of step with the circumstances around them,” she said. “What will happen is, people from other places will come. They’re going to come if they’re infected or not."

The continued spread of the coronavirus in Baton Rouge and other parts of the state was one reason Gov. John Bel Edwards cited for extending his social distancing orders until May 15.

Restrictions on restaurant dining and bars being ordered to shut down, among others, were initially set to end Friday. But Edwards had them pushed back, saying parts of the state didn’t meet the White House’s criteria to begin phased reopening as new cases and hospitalization remained steady in pockets of Louisiana. 

Edwards, following his visit Wednesday with President Trump in Washington, said the state will be ready for gradual re-opening when his new deadline expires.

Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the state's order supersedes local governments, though they are allowed to enact steeper restrictions, such as curfews or mask requirements.

“Businesses should follow the governor’s order,” Stephens said. “If I’m a restaurant owner, I should be following the rules of the stay-at-home order at a minimum.”

Under Edwards' rules, restaurants can offer patio seating without table-side service starting Friday.

Havard argues his parish is nimble enough to enact restrictions if it detects a spike in new COVID-19 cases, because of how small it is — he said the parish only has about eight sit-in restaurants.

“We’re a small community,” Havard said. “Within 30 minutes, we can have everyone shut down.”

By the time officials detect rises in case counts, the virus might have spread widely in the community and people sometimes don't develop symptoms for 14 days, said Hassig, the Tulane epidemiologist.

“This is really not a wise move because of the harm it could do to his population,” she said.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad