Louisiana is seeing encouraging trends with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations after a worrying spike over the past two months, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday, but not encouraging enough to loosen restrictions like a ban on in-person consumption at bars and limits on indoor dining.

Edwards said he’ll extend the state’s current Phase 2 order, which also mandates masks statewide, for at least three more weeks. While the state’s recent improvement is good news, the governor said the improvements are “fragile” and not robust enough to indicate a sustained trend.

“The improvements have been relatively modest,” Edwards said. “But we are encouraged.”

The decision comes as Edwards’ administration prepares to defend itself in court against several lawsuits brought by business owners who claim his restrictions are legally dubious.

The first such hearing comes Wednesday, when 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark, of Baton Rouge, will hear arguments in the case of four Jefferson Parish businesses seeking to overturn his July 11 order that mandates masks, closes bars and limits gatherings to 50 or fewer people.

Meanwhile, four bars that had their alcohol permits pulled by state officials for violating the governor’s executive order will get administrative hearings before the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Wednesday and Thursday in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, respectively. In the coming two weeks, separate federal suits against the governor for his restrictions are slated for hearings.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, in its latest report to Louisiana sent Sunday, advised the state to continue mandating masks and to keep bars closed, identifying the state as in the “red zone” for cases, according to a copy of the document. That means the state has more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population in the past week.

Edwards said Tuesday he was confident he will prevail in the litigation because the restrictions are “necessary,” and have helped relieve stress on hospitals. The White House task force came to a similar conclusion, attributing recent improvements to the early signs of the mask mandate and bar closure.

“I know this is not easy,” Edwards said. “I know no owner of a business wants to be told to limit occupancy to 50%. I know if you’re a bar owner you don’t want to be told you can’t have on-premise consumption. ... It’s just not a safe venue.”

The lawyer in the suit brought by Jefferson Parish businesses did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Edwards also said his administration will be taking “additional actions” against the Denham Springs-area Firehouse BBQ, which has remained open despite having its food permit pulled by the state for refusing to require masks for patrons of workers. He called the owners “extremely reckless and irresponsible” and said “there’s no doubt they’re contributing to the spread of the virus.”

Dr. Alex Billioux, the head of the coronavirus response for Edwards’ administration, presented data Tuesday indicating cases and COVID-like illnesses, two of the three key metrics used to decide when to reopen, are decreasing statewide. The third, hospitalizations, is plateauing.

Those improvements are happening at different paces throughout the state. The Acadiana and Lake Charles regions, where hospitals have been hit hard in recent months, are seeing the number of patients decline. Baton Rouge, which is seeing cases decrease, still has rising hospitalizations. New Orleans is seeing decreasing COVID-like illnesses and cases, and plateauing hospitalizations.

Billioux said the Health Department and other experts expected the mask mandate and bar closure would result in improving numbers, and physicians in the Acadiana and Lake Charles regions have said they’re not feeling as much pressure as of late.

“By no means are we out of the woods,” he said. “They’re still dealing with hospital capacity crunches, but we’re not in the dire straits we were in.

“We’re not in a position where we think we can peel away restrictions because this is the most number of cases of active COVID that we’ve had at any one point in time.”

Edwards’ administration also announced Tuesday it was joining five other states in a first-of-its kind pact to try to buy point-of-care coronavirus diagnostic tests that provide rapid results. The idea is to show the manufacturers of two federally-approved antigen tests that there is enough demand to ramp up production.

Still, many of the details – like how much they would cost, how many tests Louisiana would get and when they would be available – are yet to be worked out. The Trump administration has also said it will get rapid tests into nursing homes across Louisiana and the country, but Billioux confirmed Tuesday the state has not yet received any.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com