In Louisiana's biggest step towards reopening to date, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday lifted occupancy limits on bars, restaurants, salons, gyms, malls and casinos, while maintaining social distancing requirements and a mask mandate that neighboring states have cast away in recent weeks.

The updated guidelines represent the loosest restrictions since the pandemic began and come just over a year after Edwards issued a sweeping stay-at-home order, which upended daily life and kicked-off months of seesawing rules that tightened and loosened as infections ebbed and flowed. 

“Today marks a big step forward, but we’re all going to have a role to play in making sure cases don't spike again," Edwards said, adding that the best tools Louisiana has to "win the race" against COVID-19 are to wear a mask, social distance and get vaccinated.

Louisiana expects to receive a whopping 300,000 vaccine doses next week, nearly doubling the amount of weekly doses the state is currently receiving. The shipment, which doesn't include allocations some pharmacies get directly from the federal government, comes after the state opened vaccine eligibility on Monday to anyone 16 or older.

The statewide easing of restrictions appears to buck the advice of federal public health officials who in recent days warned that the nation was teetering on the edge of another deadly surge in COVID-19 cases and cautioned that relaxing pandemic rules could result in needless deaths.

Edwards, who has hewed closely to federal guidance on the pandemic in the past, said his goal was to "strike the right balance between lives on the one hand and livelihoods on the other," adding that the most urgent plea from President Joe Biden was that states maintain or reinstate their mask mandates.

Louisiana's continued mask-wearing requirement makes it an outlier among its neighbors. Texas and Mississippi both lifted their mask-wearing requirements earlier this month in a move Biden called "Neanderthal thinking," and Arkansas' mandate is set to expire at the end of March.

Edwards' latest order, which goes into effect Wednesday, expires on April 28 and also does away with an 11 p.m. curfew on establishments serving alcohol. Businesses and venues that host larger gatherings, like receptions halls, will remain capped at 50 percent of their capacity, with a maximum gathering size of not more than 500 people indoors.

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New Orleans, which has operated under stricter requirements throughout much of the pandemic, will remain in its current reopening phase and is likely to make its own announcement later this week about potential changes, city officials said. Under existing restrictions, restaurants, salons and retails stores are allowed to open at 75% capacity and bars without food permits can serve half their patrons.

Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health director, said that statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases are on a downward trend, and the rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive also dropped to 2.8%. Still, some regions of the state are faring better than others.

The number of COVID-like illnesses showing up in emergency rooms, an early indicator of coronavirus trendlines, have plateaued in the public health regions that include Acadiana, Alexandria, Monroe, Northshore and Shreveport. Meanwhile, the more transmissible U.K. variant of the virus is gaining ground, particularly in southwest Louisiana.

The state reported just 14 new infections among nursing home residents last week, the lowest recorded since the start of pandemic. Kanter said the reason for such low transmission is clear: 80% of nursing home residents are vaccinated. Edwards added that the numbers should give the public comfort that if enough people get vaccinated, the pandemic could end. 

"I don't know what more anybody would need to know that this is a safe and effective vaccine, and we have the opportunity to do that for the entire state if just enough people will avail themselves of the opportunity to be vaccinated," Edwards said.

Louisiana ranked 41st among states in the percentage of its total population that had received at least one vaccine dose, a slight drop in rankings over previous weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 1.2 million people in Louisiana — 26% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. More than 720,000 people have been fully immunized, about 16%.


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater