After a Baton Rouge judge declined to temporarily block Gov. John Bel Edwards’s coronavirus restrictions, the governor on Thursday said he will extend Louisiana’s Phase 3 rules for another four weeks.
All current restrictions, including the mask mandate, will remain in place until at least December 4, Edwards said at a Thursday press conference..
“Far more damaging to our economy than maintaining the status quo going forward is to threaten the ability of our (hospitals) to deliver lifesaving care and have to go backwards in terms of restrictions," Edwards said.
The decision was not unexpected. Louisiana is not expected to move beyond Phase 3 until a vaccine is widely available. After a period of plateauing cases and hospitalizations, coronavirus trends are starting to rise slowly in Louisiana of late, though the state has not seen big increases like other Sun Belt states.
Edwards and the state's top coronavirus response official, Dr. Joseph Kanter, pointed to data that shows the state is experiencing better coronavirus trends than much of the rest of the country. Once No. 1 in the country in cases per capita, Louisiana has dropped to sixth. While hospitalizations are rising in some parts of the state, other metrics, like cases and COVID-19-like illness, are showing mostly positive signs.
“You can see we’re doing better than the rest of the country and most of our neighbors right now," Edwards said. "...Now is exactly the wrong time to remove these restrictions and mitigation measures."
Kanter said Louisiana has been "holding the course" as other states see record increases of cases and hospitalizations. But he also pointed to recent upticks in hospitalizations, and he warned people not to "lose vigilance."
"All the success we have is highly tenuous," he said. "That’s a relatively encouraging picture considering everything else that’s going on in the country. But we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”
The governor, a Democrat, announced the move as he remains locked in a power struggle with Republican state House members, who late last month sent the governor a petition ordering him to end all of Louisiana’s coronavirus rules for a week.
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That petition, using an obscure and never-before-used state law passed during the SARS pandemic, directs the governor to issue an emergency order ending his restrictions. That would mean Louisiana, which has long had an outsized number of cases and deaths compared to its population, would have no mask mandate, social distancing requirements at businesses or limits on large gatherings.
Sixty-five of the 68 House Republicans signed the petition ordering the governor to end the virus restrictions.
The governor has refused to comply, calling the petition “reckless” and unconstitutional. He filed suit in the 19th Judicial District Court against House Speaker Clay Schexnayder asking Judge William Morvant to declare the petition null and void.
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Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who is defending the House in court, has filed his own suit asking the judge to compel Edwards to comply with the petition. He also asked Morvant to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the governor from issuing new coronavirus rules until he comes into compliance with the petition. The judge rejected that argument this week, and set a Nov. 12 Zoom hearing in the case.
Landry, at a recent gathering of Livingston Parish residents upset with coronavirus restrictions, said he recently traveled to South Dakota, which he praised for resisting many of the restrictions Louisiana has put in place. South Dakota has seen soaring cases, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks.
"We’ve got a governor that believes he knows what’s best for each and every one of you," Landry said at the event. "He believes you don’t have enough sense to take care of yourselves.”
Republican lawmakers, especially in the state House, have complained the governor hasn’t loosened restrictions more. In particular, many are seeking loosened rules on high school football, which Edwards partly acquiesced to last month by allowing up to 50% capacity at games.
But the governor also vetoed the main bill passed narrowly by Republicans in a special legislative session last month to usurp some of Edwards’ executive power. The bill, by Rep. Mark Wright, would have allowed lawmakers to strip out parts of his coronavirus restrictions that they don’t like. Schexnayder rallied the Republican delegation in the House to sign onto the petition – long considered a nuclear option that may not hold up in court – on the last day of the special session, anticipating that veto.
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The hearing Thursday will not be the first time Edwards has defended his coronavirus restrictions in court. He has won three other cases – one in state court and two in federal court – challenging the rules. A case over a Livingston Parish BBQ restaurant that has flouted his requirements is pending.