Calling it his toughest decision during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday the state will move to Phase 3 for the reopening of its economy amid an improving picture in the fight against the deadly virus.

Update: Edwards has released more details on re-opening restrictions.

"We have done better of late," Edwards told reporters. "That is what the data represents. That is why we are making the decision we made.

"The data is positive enough that we will be going in to Phase 3 tomorrow," he said.

The announcement is expected to mean looser restrictions for restaurants, retail stores, schools, churches, gyms and possibly bars, and a morale boost for residents after six months of turmoil.

However, the governor said he will spell out exactly what Phase 3 will look like on Friday, and he repeatedly urged Louisiana residents not to assume that a new phase means the pandemic is over.

New Orleans is remaining in its own version of Phase 2, which already included some tougher rules than the state mandates.

The statewide mask order will remain in place, as will the mask requirement for residents of East Baton Rouge Parish.

"As of today, the rate of COVID-19 in our community has plateaued, but it has not gone down to a safe level," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement. "We are keeping a close eye on the number of new cases, hospital capacity and positivity rate among those getting tested."

How long the state will be in the new phase is unclear, and what data was used to justify it is also expected to be detailed.

The current Phase 2 rules expire on Friday.

What impact Hurricane Laura will have on the spread of the virus in already hard-hit southwest Louisiana was one concern about implementing looser rules.

Whether the state will see a surge of positive cases after Labor Day, which happened after Memorial Day, also hovered over the decision.

Edwards said his fear is that "people will hear what they want to hear as opposed to what they are being told. We have to be extremely careful with this.

"We will be somewhat anxious over the next three weeks to get that data in," he added.

"Phase 3 is not a lifting of all restrictions. It is not some announcement that COVID-19 is no longer in Louisiana."

Edwards said that, if the state experiences a third surge of cases, he will act "pretty quickly" to re-impose rules knowing the flu season is near, and the possibility that flu and coronavirus cases could again threaten the state's hospital capacity.

"We need people to do their part," he said. "That is how we can strike the right balance between public health and having our economy opened on the other."

Guidelines spelled out by the White House and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say Phase 3 means the Phase 2 limits of 50% on indoor and outdoor capacity at restaurants are lifted while physical distancing rules stay in place.

The same benchmarks say movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums will have their capacity raised to 50% of capacity, or up to 1,000 people. Gyms and fitness centers will have their capacity boosted from 30% to 75%.

The federal guidelines also say that, under Phase 3, visits to senior care centers can resume with "diligent hygiene."

Edwards is not required to follow every detail of national Phase 3 guidelines in spelling out what the new rules will look like in Louisiana. He is expected to outline the details for Louisiana on Friday.

Whether state employees, many of whom have been working from home since March, will be required to return to their offices is among the questions.

Phase 3 could also trigger a big hike in the number of in-person classes in public schools, which are mostly operating with a combination of personal instruction and distance learning.

"I think we are ready as an education community to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said.  "I think we were successful in Phase 2 and we will be successful in Phase 3."

How quickly schools and districts make the transition is up to individual school systems.

State education officials envision school bus capacity rising from 50% to 75%, which has been a major issue in how many students return to classrooms.

Maximum group sizes would rise from 25 to 50, including adults, and children could resume contact/high risk sports, according to the state Department of Education.

The state for months has been a national leader for cases of the virus per capita.

Officials Thursday reported 499 new cases of the coronavirus, well below daily totals compared to earlier this year.

A total of 21 residents died from the virus, or 4,991 in all.

Hospitalizations of coronavirus patients decreased by 20 people on Thursday. Patients requiring ventilators increased by two.

Before the announcement Thursday there was a widespread expectation that the state would move to Phase 3 because of improved numbers.

Officials in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes each made separate pleas to Edwards last week to allow Louisiana parishes where the virus is under control to open up before the rest of the state. 

But experts warned that such a piecemeal approach could be risky in a state that just suppressed its second major wave of infections.

Broome said her office is assisting the State Fire Marshal's office in enforcing rules on COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

In a message to students, faculty and staff, LSU Interim President Thomas Galligan Jr. said campus operations will remain largely unchanged, including how courses are instructed.

Edwards has previously come under fire from some House Republicans, including charges that he was moving too slow to reopen the economy.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, offered qualified praise for Thursday's news.

"I am encouraged by the governor's announcement that the state will be moving into Phase 3 of reopening," Schexnayder said. "It is past time."


Email Emma Discher at EDischer@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter, @EmmaDischer.