Like other Southern states, Louisiana this week loosened COVID restrictions to their most relaxed phase since the pandemic began.
But in balancing public health imperatives with a desire to open businesses up more, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has also laid out a host of specific rules that businesses must follow to be in compliance with his order.
For bars, music venues and other places looking to welcome live indoor music for the first time in the past year, the regulations are extensive.
Musicians that aren’t singing must be masked at all times, according to the guidance laid out on the state Fire Marshal’s Open Safely program. The business’s ventilation system must provide a minimum of six air changes per hour within the space. The establishment also has to meet at least one additional precaution from a menu of choices: having a fan blow air toward performers at a specific number of cubic feet per minute, installing a plexiglass barrier in front of the band or requiring singers to wear masks.
Twenty feet must separate performers and the audience, the rules say, or 10 feet if there's a plexiglass barrier. Businesses must put up signs “indicating that signing and instrumental music produced by wind instruments are thought to be higher-risk activities for COVID-19 spread.”
Karaoke is forbidden. And, as has been the case for months, there’s a "Footloose" clause: dancing is not allowed in “open congregate areas'' like most dance floors.
Edwards, a Democrat who has for months faced pressure to loosen restrictions from business groups and the Republicans who dominate the state Legislature, said Tuesday he believes the state is loosening the rules “responsibly,” and said his administration will continue to watch the COVID trends. New Orleans is not following suit and loosening restrictions yet, with city officials pointing to variants circulating and recently-relaxed rules in the city.
Federal health officials have in recent days cautioned states not to loosen restrictions, fearing another wave of cases before the country can reach herd immunity through vaccinations. At the same time, the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi this week lifted mask mandates and occupancy limits on businesses.
“The CDC is not happy with anyone in the South right now,” said Dr. Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University.
Hassig, who has advised the Edwards administration on COVID rules, said she thinks Louisiana’s rules “may wind up being a step too far.” She noted cases have plateaued and testing has fallen, limiting visibility into the spread of the virus. And bars have proven “over and over” to be places where the virus spreads rampantly, she said.
Hassig said things like masks on singers and bell covers on trumpeters can go a long way toward limiting the risk that an infected musician spreads the virus to a host of people at an indoor event.
“I don’t know how many singers are going to be very happy singing in masks,” she said.
Another “psychological challenge” will be having a big space between the performers and audience with no dancing allowed, she added.
Some business groups hailed Edwards’ loosening of restrictions as a step in the right direction. Dawn Starns McVea, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement small business owners are “breathing a sigh of relief.”
“This is going to make it easier for restaurants and bars to operate, but we are disappointed by the arbitrary limits the governor continues to impose on things like how late bars can stay open,” Starns said in a statement. “The guidelines that keep customers safe at 10:59 p.m. are just as effective at 11:01.”
Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the governor’s administration kept specific regulations in place to make sure events and settings are safe, and said “there’s a lot of evidence around the importance of really good ventilation when you are indoors.”
“Just because we have the vaccines and just because we are now in Phase 3 does not mean there is no risk of getting and spreading COVID,” Neel said. “When you start easing restrictions...There's increased risk because there’s going to be increased movement.”
Beyond bars and music halls, conventions and conferences can also now apply for approval from the state Fire Marshal’s office under the Phase 3 order. Outdoor water parks can open at 50% capacity, or one person for every 60 square feet of deck space, not including “water surface area.”
Bar games like pool, darts, shuffleboard and cornhole can take place under certain conditions: Players must be seated when not actively playing, and wear masks, and equipment should allow for social distancing. In recent months, several bars have been dinged by state regulators in part because they hosted unauthorized cornhole tournaments.
Shared items like pool sticks and bean bags -- crucial cornhole equipment -- must be “thoroughly cleaned” and disinfected between use, according to the rules.