Government leaders in the Baton Rouge area largely welcomed Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to relax a stay-at-home order this Friday, with some urging continued caution and others wondering why it took the governor so long.
"What's changed that this couldn't have been done May 1?" Jody Moreau, East Feliciana Parish homeland security director, asked shortly after the governor's announcement Monday afternoon.
Edwards, in an emergency declaration, restricted travel and crowd sizes beginning in March, in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. His executive order had been set to lapse April 30, but as the number of cases and deaths climbed last month, he extended it to May 15, which is this Friday.
He said Monday that the state, as a whole, had made enough progress toward slowing the spread of the virus – flattening the curve – that Louisiana could enter Phase I of a plan to jump-start the economy.
East Feliciana was among a few parishes, as was West Feliciana, that moved into the first phase the day after the governor's original stay-at-home order expired.
"We're glad he's going to stop with the scare tactics and let our small business owners get back to feeding their families and paying bills," Moreau said. "Phase I is needed right now. But I still don't understand why this wasn't done in a regional approach."
There’s an eagerness to see more "We're Open" signs pop up, but not without the desire to see residents wear masks and practice social distancing to prevent a relapse that would force businesses to shutter again.
Most officials in the region are still ironing out details regarding when certain government offices and buildings will reopen to the public. Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, for instance, said it will likely be June before various agencies housed in the parish courthouse will open to the public again.
"We've hired a hygiene professional who is doing some remodeling. We're ripping up all the carpet and removing the cloth chairs in the courthouse. We don't want anything in the courthouse that can harbor germs and bacteria," Ourso said. "We're trying to take the courthouse up to hospital-grade quality when we reopen it to the public."
The first phase of reopening allows restaurants to offer dine-in services, limiting their occupancy to 25% of their capacity. The same restrictions holds true for the churches, gyms, movie theaters, and places of worship that can also begin opening their doors to the public May 15.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge said Monday that churches can have Mass this weekend, with the capacity limits in effect. Communion will be served, though none from a common chalice.
Barber shops, nail salons, hair salons and bars that offer food service, casinos and video poker, museums, zoos and aquariums can also operate at a quarter their normal capacity. Massage parlors, spas, tattoo parlors and bars without food permits must remain closed for the foreseeable future.
The new restrictions will stay in place until June 5.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she'll give further insight on Friday on what Phase I will look like in her parish. Those details will be based on discussions her administration had with the members of her business roundtable, she said.
"The data provided by the Louisiana Department of Health shows Region 2 (which includes Baton Rouge) is making progress in our fight against COVID19. Yet, the battle is not over," Broome said. "For that reason I’m urging everyone to strictly adhere to the physical distancing guidelines. …
“The worst thing we can do to our economy during the coronavirus pandemic is to cause a new spike in cases, forcing us to return to stay-at-home order," she said.
Broome is urging residents to still wear face coverings, avoid large gatherings, and practice good hygiene during this first phase, especially those who fall in the high-risk category of senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions. Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks shared the same sentiment.
West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot has concerns businesses won't be able to turn enough profit while resuming table service at the limited capacity outlined in the state's guidelines. He also believes it could get "tricky" for local law enforcement to enforce some of the new stipulations on businesses, which he's hoping remain good stewards to prevent a second wave of infections.
"We need to approach it with caution," Berthelot said. "I’m sure the governor would put the brakes on it if it starts getting out of control."
Berthelot said parish offices will reopen to the public beginning next week, with restrictions on the number of people allowed inside offices. At public meetings, those who wish to speak with the council may be asked to wait in a hallway, at a distance from one another, until it is their time to speak.
Pointe Coupee Parish President Major Thibaut said the parish is also considering how it will open its offices, as well as parks and recreation areas.
Last week, Pointe Coupee Parish reopened its tennis courts for two players, as well as ballpark fields as long as groups remain under 10 people.
"We’re going to put the rules out there and encourage them to use any common sense," Thibaut said.
Martin McConnell, communications director for Ascension Parish government, said parish officials won’t comment until after Edwards releases full details later this week.
"I think it’s very dangerous to prematurely suppose anything, before we actually have the order of what Phase I is going to look like,” he said.
Advocate reporter Ellyn Couvillion contributed to this report.