Pint of Beer and Shot of Whiskey on Bar

State licensing authorities allowed West Feliciana Parish to reopen its bars as the parish hit state health benchmarks Wednesday for the novel coronavirus, new state health data show.

Also, in the Baton Rouge area, Ascension Parish met the same health benchmark, known as the test positivity rate, and parish officials announced their parish and its municipalities had been authorized to reopen. But the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control hadn't yet listed the parish as getting the nod by Wednesday afternoon.

Under Gov. John Bel Edwards' Phase 3 rules, parishes with 5% or less of tests returning positive for the virus over two consecutive weeks can allow on-premises alcohol sales at bars. Bars were closed statewide following a mid-summer spike in novel coronavirus cases.

The parishes must opt in with the ATC and receive its blessing to reopen bars.

With the looser rules under Phase 3, bars and other alcohol-serving establishments can operate with table service at 25% capacity with up to 50 patrons, and they must close at 11 p.m. Other restrictions also apply.

So far, seven of the 12 parishes in the Baton Rouge region have been authorized to reopen, the ATC says. In addition to West Feliciana, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, St. James and West Baton Rouge parishes have received authorized to reopen bars. Ascension would be the eighth if granted.

"I petitioned the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control to ease the restrictions on bars in Ascension Parish and allow them to reopen," Parish President Clint Cointment said in a statement Wednesday. "Today we received that approval, so bars in Ascension Parish are authorized to reopen immediately."

ATC officials weren't immediately available Wednesday for comment.

Across Louisiana, 31 parishes have been authorized to reopen bars as of Wednesday afternoon. In addition to West Feliciana, Avoyelles, Concordia and Lafourche parishes have also received authorization.

Though health data released last Wednesday indicated West Feliciana, Avoyelles and Concordia did not meet the two-week standard necessary to reopen, the ATC's running list of parishes authorized to have bars reopen indicated all three parishes had received the agency's nod on Friday, before the latest data were formally published online.

It's not clear why. All three met this weeks round of health measurements, however, along with Lafourche.

East Feliciana Parish has also met the health benchmarks, but has not gotten authorization from the ATC, according to the agency's listing. ATC officials say they grant authorization once parishes opt in.

But Jody Moreau, the parish homeland security director, said the parish has opted in and has already granted special event permits last week to serve alcohol. Moreau said the parish has one alcohol-serving establishment and it opened last week under new owners.

As of Wednesday, East Feliciana had among the lowest test positivity rates in the Baton Rouge region: 1.7% and 1.1% in the latest two weekly measures. 

Ascension Parish had weekly positivity rates of 4.6% and 4.1% for the two weeks between Sept. 24 and Oct. 7, the health data show. West Feliciana Parish had weekly positivity rates of 4.2% and 3.1% for the same two-week period, the health data show.

In the Baton Rouge-area parishes that have already reopened, positivity rates fluctuated down further. They sometimes ticked up but remained below the 5% benchmark, with one exception.

West Baton Rouge Parish had its second consecutive week of positivity above 5%: 5.5% from Sept. 24 to 30 and 6.7% from Oct. 1 to 7.

Parishes can't be forced to shut bars down again unless they have two consecutive weeks of positivity above 10%.

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Rates in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes trended down this week but still haven't fallen below 5% yet for a single week, meaning both parishes are at least two more weeks away from reopening. 

The positivity rate shows the share of positive tests in a given batch of testing.

Health experts say the percentage is one measure of viral spread but also an indicator of the penetration of testing efforts into the community. All things being equal, increased testing should lead to lower positivity rates as long as the rate of viral spread isn't increasing.

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Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.