Louisiana is moving closer to meeting 14-day trends recommended by the White House to begin reopening, officials said Wednesday. Gov. John Bel Edwards plans a Monday announcement for what coronavirus-induced restrictions on businesses and residents will look like on May 1, when the state’s stay-at-home order is set to expire.
The next phase of restrictions in Louisiana is highly anticipated as economic losses – and the state’s outsized death toll from the virus – continue to mount. While officials race to figure out what measures will be in place starting next week, Edwards asked business leaders for help “managing expectations,” indicating the state will still mandate strict social distancing when the economy begins to reopen.
When that reopening begins, the governor also said the state will be watching closely for a spike in cases, which many epidemiologists say is all but certain, to make sure Louisiana doesn’t again near a point of overwhelming hospitals. If that happens, Edwards could halt the reopening or ratchet restrictions back up again.
“We know it’s not necessarily a one-way street,” Edwards said of loosening restrictions. “We would like for it to be a one-way street. But we’re going to have to move slow enough to know what’s going on.”
It’s not yet clear how low Louisiana’s case count, hospitalizations from coronavirus and other indicators need to be kept in order for the state to continue moving through the phased reopening once it begins, but Edwards said health leaders are working on it.
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During a call with Edwards’ newly-formed economic task force, which will provide recommendations for how to navigate the reopening of the economy, Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the state’s Office of Public Health, said the state is trying to avoid reopening “just to re-close,” if it moves too fast and without the input from businesses. “We want to avoid that at all costs.”
Much like it did with ventilators and personal protective equipment, Billioux said the state is acting like a “middle-person” with testing resources, as officials work to dramatically expand the state’s testing capacity as part of the reopening strategy. Officials have said the state needs the ability to do a minimum of 140,000 tests a month, and more ideally 200,000, which would represent roughly a doubling of the state’s capacity.
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In order to reopen, officials and health experts say Louisiana needs to get to a point where it can more closely track infections and the people who came into contact with those who are infected, a process known as contact tracing. When the outbreak was first discovered in the New Orleans area, in early March, Louisiana Department of Health workers tried to trace the contacts of those infected to get them to self-isolate, but quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases.
With the number of cases, hospitalizations and people reporting flu-like or COVID-19 systems all trending downward, officials hope to be able to have a better handle on such tracking when the reopening begins, possibly starting May 1.
Still, officials are urging people to wear masks in public and continue to practice social distancing. Edwards also implored people to get tested for the coronavirus if they’re experiencing symptoms, calling it a vital part of the state’s effort to reopen.
“We really need you wearing masks when in public and coming into contact with other people,” Edwards said, adding he will require the media to wear masks to attend his daily press conferences.
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In addition to state-specific guidance provided by health officials here, Edwards said the state is looking to White House guidance for reopening. According to that guidance, the first phase still involves serious restrictions: The elderly and people with serious health conditions should continue to shelter in place. Everyone in public should practice social distancing and avoid gatherings of 10 or more where social distancing is not practical. Businesses should encourage telework, schools and daycares should remain closed, visits to senior facilities and hospitals should remain prohibited and bars should remain closed.
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The first phase of Louisiana’s reopening remains unclear, as Edwards said his administration is still working out the details.
Epidemiologists say the greater prevalence of serious health conditions like obesity, diabetes and others in Louisiana makes the prospect of reopening dicier, and work is needed to make sure the increase in cases that comes from reopening doesn’t bring with it a wave of new deaths. Louisiana has ranked near the top of the list in the U.S. for deaths per capita.
Several GOP lawmakers have called on Edwards to begin opening the state up by May 1, and the governor has said the state will be under a different order at that point, indicating the more restrictive stay-at-home order will not be in full effect. Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has already announced her stay-at-home order will stay in place through mid-May.
Following a severe oil price crash, Edwards also directed Louisiana Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson to delay the collection of severance taxes, the bulk of which come from oil, gas and timber. The taxes due on April 25th are now due June 25th, Robinson said. Severance taxes usually bring in about $40 million a month in revenues for the state, and in fiscal year 2019 the state hauled in $529 million in severance taxes.
Louisiana stood up a temporary hospital facility at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans last month, when it appeared the region could run out of hospital beds and ventilators to treat patients. Edwards said the facility will remain in place, as officials see the possibility of an “uptick in the future that would really threaten our ability to deliver healthcare.” The state is opting out of standing up similar surge facilities at two New Orleans hotels, he said.