Louisiana will begin the first phase of reopening its economy Friday, nearly two months after Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the virus in one of the nation’s hardest-hit states.

The governor announced Monday he would allow a list of businesses including gyms, barber shops, hair salons, casinos, bars with food permits and other businesses, to reopen with 25% capacity, a condition officials said is vital to encourage social distancing and prevent a large rebound in cases. A host of other businesses, as well as churches, that have allowed to operate under the 10-person occupancy limit can loosen that to a quarter of their normal capacity.

Edwards and Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, pointed to data that suggested the state is doing better on key metrics laid out by the White House to determine if a state is ready to reopen. Those include two weeks of declining numbers of new cases, people with symptoms and hospitalizations, as well as boosted testing and contact tracing capacity.

Some regions of the state are still experiencing increases or plateaus in some of those metrics, according to Louisiana Department of Health data. But Billioux said the numbers look “rosier” than two weeks ago, when officials pointed to an uneven recovery from coronavirus in different regions to justify an extension of the stay-at-home order until May 15. He also pointed to the state’s improved ability to test people, and the hiring of 250 people to do contact tracing work, tracking down those who may have come into contact with an infected person.

“There is no playbook on how you can deem your state is 100% ready to reopen,” Billioux said. “What we need to look at is overall do you see the trends moving in the right direction.”

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell indicated the city will follow suit, beginning to loosen restrictions when the city's own stay-at-home order is set to expire Friday. Cantrell said she would offer up details about the next phase Tuesday.

Unemployment has soared to record levels in Louisiana and across the country as governors shuttered wide swaths of their economies to limit the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming hospitals. Public health officials have said the state needs to tamp down the number of cases and boost testing and contact tracing to the point where it can swiftly identify new cases and isolate those who came into contact with the infected.

While many of the businesses closed by the stay-at-home order will be allowed to reopen, Edwards cautioned that people need to practice social distancing, wear masks in public and stay home when sick. Officials will be monitoring the state’s coronavirus numbers for a spike in cases that could prompt Edwards to ratchet up restrictions again, though he declined to offer any specifics for how big a rebound would be needed to rise to that level.

“While we’re easing restrictions ... It’s not mission accomplished,” Edwards said, emphasizing his reopening was generally in line with White House guidance. “We’re not declaring victory. There’s still COVID out there.”

People who are at heightened risk, including those over the age of 65 and people with serious underlying health conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and kidney disease, among others, are encouraged to continue to stay home.

Louisiana has seen an alarmingly high death rate from the virus, something Louisiana Department of Health officials say may be due to the high prevalence of underlying health conditions. Black people have been hit particularly hard by the virus, prompting Edwards to convene a task force to address the racial disparities in deaths.

Several types of businesses must remain closed under phase one, which will last for at least 21 days, Edwards said. Those include massage parlors, spas, tattoo parlors, carnivals, amusement parks, bars and breweries without food permits and more.

Restaurants will be allowed to offer dine-in service again at the limited 25% capacity. Children's day camps will be allowed, and Edwards’ administration said they were allowed under the stay-at-home order, but the health department and State Fire Marshal are working on social distancing and sanitation guidance for those events. Sleep-away summer camps are still not allowed under the first phase, an Edwards spokeswoman said.

“I know this is difficult for our businesses and difficult for the public,” Edwards said. “But it is required if we’re going to cautiously move forward while allowing businesses to serve more people, bringing in more of their employees while keeping everyone safe.”

The economic toll taken by the virus and restrictions is compounded in Louisiana by a cratering oil price that has stoked fears about one of the state’s major employers, as well as the state’s finances. Business groups have pushed for a faster reopening of the economy, while several academic and state health experts consulted by the governor urged him to keep the restrictions in place until mid-May to get a better grip on the virus.

Republicans in the state Legislature and Louisiana’s GOP members of Congress were angered by the governor’s extension of the stay-at-home order two weeks ago, after Edwards indicated to them he expected to start the reopening on May 1.

Republican lawmakers even began pushing a resolution to kneecap Edwards’ stay-at-home order, revoking his ability to enforce it if he didn’t announce the reopening on Monday.

Many of those Republicans have pushed for a parish- or region-based reopening, arguing their regions are more equipped to loosen restrictions than those in the New Orleans area. Edwards has rejected such an approach, extending the stay-at-home order for the whole state, then reopening as a state. But he indicated he could “slam on the brakes” of easing restrictions on a region-by-region level.

Data presented by the Health Department showed only two regions – the New Orleans area and region three, which comprises river parishes and Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes – have experienced 14 days of declines in all three metrics recommended by the White House to start reopening. Several others were still experiencing growth or plateaus in new cases, though Billioux suggested that could be affected by boosted testing levels. He said the rate of positive cases compared to total tests has steadily declined, which is a good sign.

Acadiana Business Today: Acadiana business owners talk reopening plans with 25% capacity; Louisiana coronavirus reopening, Phase I: What's open and what's closed?


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com