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Matthew Block, Executive Counsel for Gov. John Bel Edwards, testifies in the House and Governmental Affairs committee against House Concurrent Resolution 58, by House GOP leader Blake Miguez, R-Erath, Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at the State Capitol. The resolution with its amendments focuses on stripping the enforcement power of the Gov. John Bel Edwards executive orders, like the stay-at-home order affecting businesses to stanch the community spread of the often-deadly novel coronavirus and reopen businesses before the Governor advises. The measure appeared aimed to force Edwards' hand to begin reopening businesses in mid-May, when the governor has indicated the first phase of reopening could begin. 

Two weeks ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards made the surprise announcement that he was extending his stay-at-home order until mid-May, siding with public health experts who warned the virus was still too rampant in parts of the state to begin reopening safely.

[Update, 2:35 p.m. Monday: Louisiana to enter phase one of reopening Friday, John Bel Edwards announces]

On Monday, he’ll announce the results of that high-stakes process once again, deciding whether the state will enter “phase one” of loosened restrictions and allow barber shops, salons and dine-in restaurants to reopen at a fraction of their normal capacity.

The decision is not only colored by an economic crisis that has put historic levels of Louisiana workers on the unemployment rolls, but also public health realities that have caused the state to be hit harder by the virus than almost anywhere else in the U.S. Louisiana has among the highest rates of cases and deaths per capita, and black communities have been hit particularly hard, as have the state’s nursing homes and other congregant settings.

While there is still “a lot of COVID” in Louisiana, Edwards said, the state has made strides to flatten the curve and boost testing and contact tracing. “We are in a much better place, quite frankly, today than I thought would be possible a month ago.” he added.

[Watch liveJohn Bel Edwards to address latest on coronavirus and the state's plans]

The state has started receiving much-needed test kits from the federal government, and will have in place the first batch of 250 contact tracers at call centers by May 15, Edwards said.

But he cautioned people that the virus is not going away, and in fact it will make a resurgence when the reopening starts in earnest. That means the state’s residents need to wear masks, stay six feet away from strangers, wash their hands and do other things recommended by public health experts to slow the spread.

“There is a new normal, so we want to make sure we prepare people for that,” he said Friday.

Edwards, a Democrat, is no longer benefiting from a bipartisan front offered up by Republican leaders ahead of his previous announcements. Infuriated by the extension of the stay-at-home order until May 15, and what they see as a lack of communication from the governor’s office, GOP state lawmakers are calling for the governor to reopen the state, regardless of whether his health experts agree.

Republican party leaders, including all of Louisiana’s GOP congressmen, are calling for a parish-by-parish reopening of the state. Some more conservative members of the state House led a protest at the Governor’s Mansion recently, demanding an unfettered lifting of restrictions.

The animosity has transformed into legislation to undermine Edwards’ stay-at-home order, which shutters bars, casinos, gyms and a host of other businesses, limits gatherings to 10 or less and restricts restaurants to take-out, delivery or drive-through service.

Rep. Blake Miguez, the chair of the House GOP Delegation, successfully ushered a resolution through the House and Governmental Affairs Committee last week after a tense, five-hour long hearing on whether the Legislature should “take the teeth” out of Edwards’ order. The resolution would end the governor’s ability to enforce his order, and “urge and request” local officials to adopt White House guidance for reopening.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican who won the speakership with help from Edwards and the House Democratic Caucus, said that resolution will loom over Edwards’ decision.

“The resolution is a tool that we have that we’re going to definitely move on,” Schexnayder said during a teleconference with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber on Friday. “I think it’s something we need to hang on to just in case. We’re going to have that resolution on the floor come Wednesday.”

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The speaker and other Republicans have indicated the resolution won’t be necessary if Edwards starts the reopening on May 16.

Schexnayder also acknowledged that Edwards is “looking at this by the numbers.” But Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, also a Republican, were upset that Edwards extended the order last time after indicating to them he would start the reopening May 1. The two learned shortly before the announcement that he was extending the restrictions, though he allowed restaurants to let patrons sit on outdoor patios and malls to offer curbside pickup.

“I think the governor, if the communication lines wouldn’t have broken down last time, I don’t think any of that would have come into play,” Schexnayder said of the resolution to kneecap his executive order.

Edwards’ administration has blasted the resolution to undermine his stay-at-home order, and said he is following White House guidelines. President Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Edwards’ handling of the pandemic, and Edwards recently went to Washington to meet with Trump at the White House.

The governor’s office has not released updated data used to decide whether the state has met the thresholds laid out by the White House for beginning phase one. That criteria calls for a 14-day decline in new cases, people with COVID-19-like symptoms and hospitalizations. In late April, Louisiana statewide was seeing decreases of all three, but several regions were experiencing increases.

The Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge think tank, released its own analysis of whether the state and various regions were meeting those criteria Friday, though LDH was not releasing enough data to replicate all three.

PAR wrote in an analysis that as of May 7, Louisiana overall is moving in the right direction with hospitalizations, but that the state overall is a plateau for new cases. Plus, some regions are increasing in new cases per capita, depending on how long of a time period is analyzed.

On the other hand, the state in recent days has ramped up its testing levels to relatively high levels. Epidemiologists and health experts say testing is crucial to reopening. The state must be able to quickly identify new cases and dispatch “contact tracers” to track down people those infected came into contact with.

Testing has also risen dramatically, and the percent of results coming back positive has dropped, a promising sign. Officials have said they need at least 140,000 tests a month to begin reopening, but the federal government recently promised to provide equipment for 200,000 a month.

And Edwards announced Friday he had signed deals for 250 contact tracers – call center workers who will track down people who came into contact with those who test positive and urge them to isolate or quarantine.

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said both testing and contact tracing will be crucial to the reopening. The state will use the resources to take people who have been exposed to the virus out of public settings before they begin spreading it. People can become contagious 48 hours before showing symptoms, another reason officials have urged for people to wear masks.

“As we move into looking at the next phases and considering relaxation of the stay-at-home order it’s more critical than ever that we have the ability to comprehensively interview every case that's detected, and identify the people who could have come into contact with those individuals,” Billioux said.

Acadiana Business Today: Getting a degree in a pandemic: Meet 4 UL students whose career plans have been altered by COVID-19; John Bel Edwards to announce possible reopening Monday


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com