After seeing the worst spike of the pandemic recede in recent weeks, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday moved the state into the loosest phase of coronavirus rules to date, allowing bars statewide to reopen indoors and resuming live indoor music.
The decision to relax the restrictions on business occupancy, gatherings and other settings comes as most – but not all – regions of the state continue to see improving COVID-19 trends. Meanwhile, Edwards’ administration and federal health officials continue to sound the alarm about more contagious variants of the virus circulating before most of the population can get vaccinated.
Edwards kept the state’s mask mandate in place. But bars across the state are allowed to open to 25% indoor capacity, and bars in parishes with less than 5% of COVID tests coming back positive for two weeks can allow 50% capacity. The order goes into effect Wednesday.
And for the first time, indoor live music can resume under the rules, if establishments follow regulations laid out by the state fire marshal. Event centers and indoor music venues can open at 50% capacity or 250 people.
Religious service will no longer have any capacity limits, though masks will still be required.
“I believe there's been enough progress made and that the reduced positivity is sufficiently spread across the state that we’re able to take this step responsibly at this time,” Edwards said about reopening bars across the state. “We’re obviously going to continue to watch it.”
Gyms will still be under 50% occupancy restrictions. But in many respects, the new “Phase 3” order represents the loosest rules since the pandemic began. Alex Box stadium and other sporting venues across the state will be allowed to open at 50% capacity.
In previous iterations of the order, parishes had to reach the 5% threshold of percent positivity of COVID tests before “opting in” to allow bars to reopen at 25%.
Now, bars across the state can reopen, and allow live indoor music, though they still must close at 11 p.m. and not allow people under 21. That also applies to the southwest Louisiana region, which Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, noted is still seeing rising cases and hospitalizations.
“Do not equate the relaxed measures with there being zero risk. We are not out of the woods by any means,” Kanter said. “We know what works. We know what prevents transmission ... none of that changes today.”
The governor has loosened restrictions at several points over the past nearly 12 months, only to see cases and hospitalizations eventually skyrocket, prompting tighter rules. Officials hope vaccinations will continue to tamp down hospitalizations and other metrics as more people get inoculated in the coming months.
On Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a briefing that declines in COVID trends are stalling nationally, and said she was “really worried” about states rolling back public health measures.
“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
The same day Louisiana loosened its rules, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was revoking limits on occupancy and lifting the state’s mask mandate.
In New Orleans, officials aren’t following Edwards’ lead toward looser rules.
As has been the case for the entirety of the pandemic, the city will be sticking with more stringent rules than the rest of the state, said LaTonya Norton, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
The city, which just eased some of its own restrictions on Friday to bring limits on gatherings and dining more in line with the state, is still waiting to see whether those changes will lead to an increase in cases, Norton said in an email.
Based on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city also is worried that reopening now could allow more contagious variants to spread, she said.
State officials say vaccinations, which have been tilted toward older and more vulnerable people so far, are starting to make a dent in the COVID trends. Still, only about 14% of Louisianans have received one shot of the vaccine so far. About 8% have received both shots, which give people full protection.
Louisiana is set to receive almost 38,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID vaccine this week, a boost to the state’s effort to inoculate a large majority of its population. The Joe Biden administration told the state Tuesday it likely won’t receive another shipment until the end of the month.
Next week, the state will get 102,330 doses of vaccine, coming entirely from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s products, Kanter said.
Edwards, a Catholic, said he spoke to New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond on Sunday, a day before Aymond released a statement calling the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “morally compromised” because of its connection to abortion-derived cell lines.
But Edwards said he didn’t read Aymond’s statement as telling Catholics it’s completely unacceptable to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He also pointed to a statement by Baton Rouge’s Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Duca Monday that said members of his flock may receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if no other vaccine is available.
Edwards said people won’t be able to go to a vaccine site and “be given a menu” to choose between vaccines.
“You do have to weigh this with the common good of ending a pandemic,” Edwards said. “The fastest way to do this is deploy all the vaccines and have the uptake of the vaccines be as great as possible.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.