Coronavirus file photo stock of closed business on Bourbon Street

A business is seen boarded up on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Thursday, March 19, 2020. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell have ordered all restaurants and bars to close except for takeout, and asked residents to remain home and maintain social distancing from others when outside, due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana is loosening its restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, allowing bars to reopen and expanding the occupancy requirements to 50% for a host of businesses, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday.

The decision, made after consultation with state health officials, comes three weeks after Edwards said he would end the state’s stay-at-home order and start a phased reopening. The first phase of that reopening allowed a host of businesses, like restaurants, retailers and casinos, operate at 25% occupancy.

The second phase will begin Friday, Edwards said. The new rules let businesses that have been operating at 25% capacity boost that to 50%. Bars that don’t serve food will be allowed to open for the first time since March, albeit under a stricter 25% capacity. Some other businesses that have been shuttered, including spas, massage establishments and tattoo parlors, will be allowed to reopen with restrictions. 

“We still have work to do,” Edwards said. “We still have restrictions that have to be in place.”

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, pointed to largely positive signs in the state’s coronavirus data. New cases, reports of COVID-19-like illnesses and hospitals have all fallen statewide.

Still, some areas of the state are seeing increasing or plateauing metrics. New Orleans is experiencing a plateau in cases, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Central Louisiana is seeing spikes in cases and hospitalizations, and Monroe has increasing hospitalizations as well.

Some health experts have cast doubt on the state’s ability to accurately determine whether it is ready to move into Phase 2. New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said last week it was “a little premature” for the city to make the call this early. On Monday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell confirmed the city – once a major hotspot nationally for the virus – would not follow the state’s lead and instead wait to enter into such a robust loosening of restrictions.

But Billioux pointed to the fact that the state has dramatically ramped up testing and contact tracing – a key part of the reopening strategy. Louisiana exceeded its goal of 200,000 coronavirus tests deployed in May, and has hired 613 people to conduct contact tracing.

While some regions are not improving, Billioux said he’s confident the state has the ability to track infections, and he said some of the problems are related to congregant settings – like nursing homes and prisons – that don’t generally pose a risk to the public.

“Despite this generally good trend … we must continue to double down on the measures we know work,” Billioux said. “The goal should still be to stay six feet away from each other.”

The state is still not mandating people wear masks while in public. But Edwards’ administration is urging restaurants to deploy temperature checks at the door as restrictions are loosened further. And public-facing employees will continue to be required to wear masks.

Billioux also encouraged people to avoid businesses where people aren’t following health advice, like wearing masks. High-risk individuals — the elderly and those with underlying health conditions — are encouraged to continue to stay home, in the new phase. Everyone is encouraged to wear masks when outside of the home, and businesses are urged to keep employees working from home if possible.

“Don’t put your life at risk for something like a bowling game,” Billioux said.

The loosened rules come as Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and more than 50 Republican state lawmakers, along with one Democrat, signed a letter urging Edwards to open up all businesses, and to have the same set of regulations for all.

House Republican Delegation Chairman Rep. Blake Miguez said Monday businesses are struggling with a patchwork of rules from different boards and regulatory bodies. He also echoed concerns of other Republican lawmakers that the restrictions on occupancy are arbitrary.

“Business has sacrificed for eight weeks now and hasn’t been able to open like they’d like to,” Miguez said. “We’re taking the American dream away from some of our citizens.”

Louisiana was hit harder and earlier than most states by the coronavirus, experiencing the fastest growth rate of cases in the world at one point, according to one estimate. In March, Edwards became the ninth U.S. governor to issue a stay-at-home order.

Since then, unemployment has soared, and economists have raised alarms about a hard road to recovery for a state hammered by a simultaneous crash in the price of oil.

Miguez led an effort earlier in the session to undermine Edwards’ ability to enforce his stay-at-home order, but backed off after the governor began reopening the state’s businesses. That section of law is not included in a special session call issued by lawmakers, meaning they cannot take it up during the session that began Monday evening and runs the entire month.

The governor said he based his rules on White House guidance for reopening, and said that guidance treats businesses differently depending on the level of risk.

In explaining the decision to have bars operate at a reduced capacity in the new phase – 25%, instead of 50% for other businesses – Billioux pointed to South Korea, which saw an explosion of cases at bars during its reopening that prompted officials to shutter bars in Seoul. In Louisiana, bars will have to operate like restaurants, with patrons sitting at tables that are spaced out.

“We’re doing what we can to strike the right balance between re-engaging as much of our economy as we can … with the demands that we have based on the public health emergency,” Edwards said.

Staff writers Jessica Williams and Jeff Adelson contributed to this story. 

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Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com