BR.jbepress.082720 TS 90.jpg

Gov. John Bel Edwards masks up after yielding the lectern to DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, left, to speak on the situation with southwest Louisiana roadways being used for Hurricane Laura evacuation, just before Edwards spoke again to extend COVID-19 Phase 2 reopening for at least another two weeks, at a press conference Wednesday at the Louisiana State Police Training Academy.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he will keep the state’s Phase 2 restrictions in place for another two weeks, adding he was concerned that thousands of students were returning to K-12 school and that Hurricane Laura evacuations could help spread the virus further.

The decision means Louisiana will keep restrictions on businesses – including a closure of bars and 50% occupancy limits at restaurants, shopping malls, gyms, and other businesses – until Sept. 11.

At the end of the two weeks, Edwards said the administration will reassess.

Edwards signed the order late Wednesday afternoon as Baton Rouge felt the rain and winds of the hurricane headed for a landfall at Louisiana's Sabine River border with Texas.

Edwards told reporters earlier Wednesday the state has suspended COVID-19 testing and done so at a pivotal point when about 1 million students are returning to classes in K-12 and higher education schools. Other states have used testing at this time to locate hot spots for the coronavirus.

“This is when you would want to be looking really, really hard,” Edwards said. But such testing will have to wait until after the hurricane emergency passes. He's also concerned that evacuations will throw people from southwest Louisiana, where the virus is strongest, together in shelters and hotels around the state. Though state officials are insisting on masks and social distancing, such a movement necessarily will bring people into contact for short periods of time.

In his order Edwards noted that the majority new cases are among young adults aged 18-29 years and children under the age of 18. The number of cases per capita for this age group has risen from 207 positive tests per 100,000 Louisiana residents in March to 1,634 per 100,000.

Edwards added that the Louisiana Department of Health reported 844 more coronavirus cases, 32 more deaths and 16 fewer hospitalizations Wednesday.

Nearly 10,000 more coronavirus patients have been listed as 'presumed recovered' in the past week. There were 14,105 additional tests reported to the state on Wednesday.

Edwards said on a Baton Rouge talk radio show Tuesday morning that he was “greatly concerned” that the return of K-12 schools and colleges around the state could lead to heightened transmission of the virus.

The governor said Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, also expressed “concerns” about the state Monday evening, and he noted if Hurricane Laura prompted mass evacuations, cases could start to surge again.

Officials in Calcasieu Parish told their more than 200,000 residents to evacuate Tuesday. Officials have said they are working to put evacuees up in hotels and motels, and that congregate shelters are a “last resort.”

Bill Cassidy tests positive for coronavirus and is in quarantine with mild symptoms

The possible loosening of restrictions is of particular interest for college football teams including LSU, which is awaiting guidance from Edwards on whether they can welcome fans into Tiger Stadium next month, assuming the season moves forward as planned. High school football is not allowed in Phase 2, and wouldn’t be able to be played until something the Louisiana High School Athletic Association is calling “Phase 4.”

Louisiana entered Phase 2 on June 4, allowing businesses to expand occupancy from 25% to 50% and letting bars reopen for the first time. By mid-July, the state was seeing a surge in cases. Hospitals in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Acadiana reported being overwhelmed with patients, as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked, reaching a peak of 1,600 near the end of the month.

In response, Edwards ordered bars statewide to shut down on July 11, and made face masks mandatory when in public for nearly the whole state. He later revised his order to make the mask order statewide.

Louisiana likely to have no coronavirus protocols for the election unless courts step in

After seeing infections and hospitalizations steadily drop, Edwards and the White House Coronavirus Task Force attributed the improvements to those restrictions. At the same time, they have rankled Republican state lawmakers – some of whom are seeking to nullify all of Edwards’ restrictions – and drawn several lawsuits.

A state judge in Baton Rouge and two federal judges, one in New Orleans and one in Lafayette, ruled in separate cases that Edwards’ mask mandate and bar closure are legal and constitutional. Those came despite Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s advisory opinion that claimed the orders violated the constitution.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force has recommended Louisiana take even more restrictive measures, including rolling back indoor dining occupancy to 25%, as it was under Phase 1. In the latest state report the White House issued to Louisiana, the task force recommended keeping the mask mandate and bar closure in place, limiting indoor dining to 25% and asking residents to limit social gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

Louisiana is still in the “red zone” for cases, meaning more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population in the last week, according to the White House report, with the 18th-highest rate in the country. The state’s positivity rate, between 5% and 10%, is now in the “yellow zone.” Both indicators represent an improvement from recent weeks.

Here are a few key statewide statistics as of Wednesday:

  •  Total cases: 144,960
  •  Total deaths: 4,688
  •  Currently hospitalized: 914
  •  Currently on ventilators: 148
  •  Presumed recovered: 127,918 (updated weekly)

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com