Nearly a month after they reopened, Ascension Parish bars were again forced to close for on-site sales after new state coronavirus data showed the parish rising above state health benchmarks, state licensing officials said.
Ascension is the only parish in the Baton Rouge area -- and one of only two in the state so far -- that had been allowed to reopen bars but then lose that permission, the state office listing shows.
Officials in other parishes also aired concerns about the trend lines in the new data with colder months on the horizon.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome urged residents to redouble their efforts to hold back the virus and avoid “COVID fatigue.”
State data showed the latest weekly positivity rate in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana's largest, hit 5% after weeks of remaining below that threshold.
Broome said the rise in viral test positivity puts the parish's economy and hospital capacity at risk should the trends continue during the fall and winter. That's when health experts have warned cases could surge again with people headed indoors.
"This is very concerning as much of our country is in the midst of the latest coronavirus resurgence," she said in a statement. "In some places, patients are being airlifted to other cities because their local hospitals are at maximum capacity."
Mark Armstrong, Broome’s spokesman, said the rising positivity rates have come with increasing numbers of daily cases of the virus in the parish.
Despite the rising positivity rates, however, bars in East Baton Rouge Parish aren’t at risk of being closed again until positivity rates hit or exceed 10% for two consecutive weeks.
But Broome said the virus’s upward trajectory poses more risks to the community than only economic ones.
"Even more concerning is the potential for our hospitals to become overwhelmed as we head towards the height of flu season," Broome added. "If this happens, citizens could needlessly die."
After narrowly missing an opportunity to win reelection to a second term Nov. 3, Broome, a Democrat, is headed to a runoff Dec. 5 with former Baton Rouge legislator Steve Carter, a Republican.
Carter's campaign said he "is also concerned about the trend especially as surrounding parishes opt to shutter bars."
"A Carter administration will follow best practices as prescribed by state, local, and federal health officials," a campaign statement says.
In Ascension, positivity rates broke 10% for the two consecutive weeks stretching from Oct. 22 to Nov. 4: 12.8% and 12% for the two weekly periods, health data show.
The parish can’t opt back in to the looser Phase 3 requirements until it again hits a 5% positivity rate or less for two consecutive weeks.
The change applies not only to unincorporated areas but also the parish's three municipalities: Gonzales, Donaldsonville and Sorrento.
Ascension Parish officials issued a statement Thursday afternoon confirming that state licensing officials had informed them about the bar closures.
Parish President Clint Cointment told residents that remaining vigilant and following federal and state safety guidelines, like wearing masks, had long-term economic consequences, as well as health benefits.
“Please, I ask all residents to do their part in helping to lower our percent positivity for COVID-19 so we can reopen more of our businesses,” Cointment said in a statement.
With the looser rules under Phase 3, bars and other alcohol-serving establishments in eligible parishes 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.
Before Thursday's data bumped Ascension, eight of the 12 parishes in the Baton Rouge area had seen improving health statistics and opted in to Phase 3 for expanded bar operations, including East Baton Rouge Parish since Sept. 30.
While those other parishes can continue bar operations, West Baton Rouge Parish may be in danger next week of losing the ability if trends continue, the data show.
Some parishes like St. Helena and Livingston have never met those marks, while one, East Feliciana, has met the marks but hasn't asked to opt in because of its limited alcohol establishments, parish officials said.
Some parishes have also taken a different approach on interpreting what the various health benchmarks mean for their residents.
The Livingston Parish Council adopted a resolution without opposition on Oct. 8 calling for Gov. John Bel Edwards to lift the Phase 3 business restrictions in that parish as long as businesses follow social distancing and masking requirements.
At the time they voted, the parish positivity rate was 5.8%, higher than East Baton Rouge.
Livingston Parish won't have a chance for bars to reopen for at least another two weeks. The latest positivity figure was 10.4%.
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.
Concordia Parish had previously lost its ability to have bars reopen due to high positivity rates, the ATC says.