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Warning about COVID-19 on a sign where parents drop off their children at the gate to Lusher Charter School for the first day of in-class schooling in New Orleans on Thursday, September 17, 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday he's ditching nearly every remaining coronavirus restriction in Louisiana and lifting a statewide mandate that students wear a mask at school. 

Edwards said he'll continue to extend the state's public health emergency declaration for as long as the pandemic persists, but only to take advantage of cost-sharing opportunities provided by the federal government. 

The watered down restrictions that Edwards had left in place over the last month — including capacity limits on bars, live music venues, athletic events, convention centers and other large gatherings — will all be scrapped in the new executive order to take effect Wednesday. 

Masks are still required on public transit, in healthcare facilities like nursing homes and hospitals, and in prisons and jails. But the remaining face covering requirement for early learning centers, K-12 schools and universities will end. Much like local governments and businesses, the decision to mandate masks now lies with each school district and university administration. 

New Orleans officials said Tuesday the order has no bearing on their restrictions and the city will continue to require bars to close at 1 a.m. 

Louisiana reported Tuesday its lowest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began with just 269 patients, and new diagnoses of the deadly virus have steadily declined over the last two weeks after flatlining for several months.

Edwards credited "medical science" and the widespread availability of vaccinations for bringing Louisiana to a point where it could relax nearly all of its restrictions. Nearly 1,500 providers statewide are administering the vaccine free-of-charge, and ride-sharing apps have partnered with the state to cover the cost of transportation.

Still, vaccine uptake in Louisiana continues to lag the rest of the country, with only 31% of the state's 4.6 million residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That distinction was made all the clearer Tuesday as the White House touted that 50% of the nation's adults were fully vaccinated.  

As vaccine hesitancy persists, the death toll from the virus — now topping 10,000 in Louisiana — continues to grow. Edwards reported 13 new deaths Tuesday, noting that none had been vaccinated.   

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"The deaths are actually harder to accept and understand now because they come months after the vaccine has become available, and we know the vaccine is effective," Edwards said.

The Democratic governor said that Louisiana will soon announce a vaccine incentive program with dollars allocated from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March, but had few details Tuesday. Edwards referenced Ohio, which is offering vaccinated adults the chance to win $1 million, as a possible model. He also pointed to a program in Maine that's giving vaccinated adults gift cards, sports tickets, and hunting and fishing licenses.

"I just hope people don’t wait until there’s an incentive and they will take as an incentive the promise that vaccinations offer for your health and for the health of your relatives, coworkers and strangers," Edwards said.

Louisiana has focused much of its vaccination roll-out in recent months on outreach efforts in census tracts with particularly low rates of inoculation, canvassing door-to-door and hosting pop-up vaccination clinics. Edwards put a call out Tuesday for communities looking to host vaccine events.

"If you're a church, contact us, we'll go do a vaccine event at your church. If you can get enough employees, we'll come to your place of work," Edwards said. "If you've got other areas where you know a number of people are going to be gathered and want vaccines, contact us."

The decision to lift the mask mandate in the state's educational institutions was lauded in a statement from State Superintendent Cade Brumley, who said he met with Edwards last week to request that the restriction be nixed. 

"After a statewide effort that served its purpose, I applaud Governor Edwards for now returning this decision to our local communities. They know their children best," Brumley wrote. "I’m confident we will continue to move closer to offering in-person instruction to every child by the start of next school year.”

Though the emergency proclamation carries few of the restrictions on behaviors and businesses that it did when it was first enacted 14 month ago, it does allow Louisiana to take advantage of certain federal resources.

That includes 1,000 soldiers activated under the National Guard, who have administered nearly 375,000 tests, 65,000 vaccine doses and have packed 29 million pounds of food. Edwards said that his administration has also tracked more than $1.1 billion in state and local government spending that is fully reimbursable through FEMA. 


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