Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards will extend the state’s stay-at-home order until May 15th, keeping a wide swath of the state’s economy at a standstill in an effort to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus in one of the country’s hardest-hit states.

For days, Edwards’ administration has prepared for what he hoped could be the phased reopening of the economy on May 1, the day after his existing stay-at-home order was set to expire. But Sunday, at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, he consulted state health leaders and several outside public health experts on the trajectory of cases and hospitalizations in the state. The group came to a sober conclusion: Louisiana isn’t ready.

“I would much rather have come out today and said we looked at the criteria we met it all, we’re going to go to phase one,” Edwards said Monday. “That’s just not where we are. The one thing I refuse to do is fudge that. I’m not going to pretend we’re better off than we are.”

Louisiana has slowed the spread of the virus in recent weeks, as residents have been ordered to stay at home unless going out for essential trips and avoid gatherings. But Edwards and Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the state’s Office of Public Health, pointed to an unequal slowing of the virus across the state.

While New Orleans has met all three criteria laid out by White House recommendations to begin reopening – two weeks of declines in new cases, hospitalizations and people with COVID-19-like symptoms – other places have not, according to Edwards' administration. The greater Baton Rouge, Acadiana and northeast Louisiana regions have all seen increasing case counts over the period. The Northshore region has seen a plateauing of cases, while others haven’t seen adequate drops in hospitalizations, according to Billioux.

“Our strong recommendation to the governor was it was too soon to remove the stay-at-home restrictions at this time,” Billioux said.

Billioux said while it’s not entirely clear why those areas haven’t seen numbers improve enough, he said there is anecdotal evidence they may not be following the stay-at-home order as strictly as people in New Orleans. All the new cases are now occurring since the stay-at-home order went into effect, he noted.

Louisiana's current stay-at-home order, which is slated to end April 30th but will be extended to May 15th, bans gatherings of 10 or more, closes bars, gyms, casinos, shopping malls, barber shops, salons and other non-essential businesses and limits restaurants to drive-through, delivery and takeout.

It has largely succeeded in slowing the spread, officials said, though the state’s outsized death toll has climbed to 1,697, with more than 27,000 testing positive. Health officials believe the actual number of those infected is many times that number because so many people show few or no symptoms, but Edwards said the state would soon work to test asymptomatic people once testing capacity is adequate.

On Sunday, Edwards consulted with Dr. Catherine O’Neal, of Our Lady of the Lake; Dean Smith, of LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport; Dr. Susan Hassig, of Tulane University; and Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, of LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, about the latest data on cases, hospitalizations and the symptomatic. The governor said all agreed on the extension. He added that Vice President Mike Pence supported the move in a call with governors Monday.

The stay-at-home order will have three changes: Restaurants will be allowed to let customers eat outdoors on patios as long as there is no table service, malls can operate curbside retail and public-facing workers must wear masks. Those three changes will take place May 1, when the current order is set to expire.

Edwards urged businesses to read the executive order closely, as some have shut down even though they weren’t required. He also continued to urge people to wear masks and advised people to spend time outside in their free time.

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The revised stay-at-home order will be in place until May 16th, when Edwards plans to begin phase one of a gradual reopening of the state's economy if the numbers warrant.

On that date, restaurants will be allowed to offer dine-in services with modifications, worship services can resume in person, salons and personal care businesses can reopen, though businesses and others will have to operate at a reduced 25% occupancy. Bars will remain closed during the phase that begins May 16th.

While the governor said he doesn’t believe the numbers warrant starting Friday, he said “we’re well on our way” to reopening.

Still, the decision comes as some Republican lawmakers and conservative groups call for the state to reopen May 1, or let the state open parish-by-parish. The virus has taken an unprecedented toll on the state’s economy as unemployment claims mount, and as an oil price crash puts pressure on the state budget and oil and gas industry. 

Edwards rejected the idea of opening the state on a parish-by-parish level, saying the metrics are not improving enough in several population centers across the state. He said he didn’t want to allow a “hotspot” to form.

The extension of Louisiana’s stay-at-home order brings it in line with New Orleans, one of the nation’s biggest hotspots for the virus last month, where Mayor LaToya Cantrell had already extended her similar order through mid-May.

“We need everyone to double-down,” Cantrell said in a statement. “People must continue to stay home except for essential activities, and people must wear face coverings in public. Stay home now, so we can all come together safely when the time is right.”

But the lifting of some restrictions apparently won't apply in New Orleans, where restaurants have been limited to takeout only since mid-March and an order last week extended those rules and others until May 16.

A spokesman for Cantrell said Monday that the mayor’s extended restrictions, which also forbids malls from operating, will not change as a result of the governor’s order. The mayor had urged residents across the city to wear masks in public earlier this month, though that is not explicitly stated in her proclamation.

“No changes to her order at present,” said Beau Tidwell.

In the meantime, Louisiana will work to boost the number of coronavirus tests and contact tracers at its disposal. Epidemiologists say both are key to reopening – part of a strategy to tamp down the virus to the point where officials can adequately track those who have been infected and come into contact with infected people to tell them to isolate. Louisiana needs at least 140,000 tests a month, and ideally 200,000, Billioux said, and is about halfway there. The state hopes to be about 25% of the way to 700 contact tracers by the end of May, he added.

Several other states across the south have taken steps to reopen. Texas announced Monday it would allow restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen with limited capacity. Mississippi’s “safer-at-home” order loosening restrictions also went into effect Monday.

Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation in cases per capita, and the governor pointed to the fact that other states in the top 10 in that metric are also not opening on May 1.

“The reality is the disease has spread through our state at a rate and at numbers that far exceeds those of our neighbors,” Edwards said.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com