Skeptical members of two House committees Wednesday grilled Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration on reasons behind economic and other restrictions aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic, amid warnings by health leaders that a resurgence is all but inevitable.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers began work on possible ways to curb Edwards' ability to spell out rules governing restaurants, businesses and bars.

The Senate, led by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, passed legislation Wednesday to give lawmakers oversight – but not voting power – over the governor’s executive orders. It would also require both chambers to sign off on a petition to cancel an executive order, thereby making it more difficult to nullify all coronavirus restrictions. Some of the more conservative House members are circulating petitions to do that. 

That bill passed 36-0, but it must receive support from the House before heading to the governor’s desk. 

All the action took place on the third day of a special session called by the Republican-controlled Legislature. One of the key topics, which has dominated the opening days of session, is whether and how to allow lawmakers more input into coronavirus restrictions.

The gathering can last up to 30 days and has to end by Oct. 27 at 6 p.m.

The House Education and Health committees held a five-hour hearing mostly devoted to questioning state Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry, a 30-year veteran, and Dr. Joseph Kanter, the Louisiana Department of Health's medical director for the New Orleans region.

Guidry bluntly told the committees he is confident there will be a new surge of cases during flu season and it will be as intense as the outbreak in Louisiana in the spring.

"We do not know at this time what the virus brings to us, what we are going to deal with," Guidry said.

"My biggest fear is we think it is going away and it is not going away," he said later.

But a host of Republican lawmakers, who say they have been sidelined from the governor's decisions as constituents complain, spent hours questioning reasons for the restrictions.

Reps. Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; and others asked about rules governing public schools, the 25% capacity at high school football games and how far state government should go in regulating daily life.

Echols said fears about doctor visits for cardiovascular, cancer and other issues may eventually lead to more deaths than the 5,000 plus from the virus.

"My concern and fear is we have scared people literally to death in this process," Echols said.

Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Edwards, wrote on Twitter, "Yes, that is why (the governor and health department) authorized medical facilities to begin non-emergency procedures back in late April."

Under orders of the governor, the state is in Phase 3 for the reopening of its economy, which allows restaurants and other sites to operate at 75% of capacity and permits bars to reopen, with restrictions, if parishes meet certain thresholds. East Baton Rouge Parish, home to LSU, joined others in meeting that threshold Wednesday. 

Edwards has repeatedly said his orders are aimed at striking a balance between savings lives and allowing citizens to make a living.

Edmonds and others repeatedly questioned why the state placed a cap of 25% of stadium capacity for high school football games.

"I do believe this is bringing some psychological damages to some of those families and we want to help them," he said.

Kanter said there are multiple risks for such gatherings, including crowds entering and leaving the high school field and trips to restrooms.

"All of those things go in and present considerable risk," he said. "There is no doubt about it."

Kanter said public schools have reported 523 cases of the virus.

Crews said herd immunity – allowing enough infections nationwide to essentially allow the virus to run its course – is an idea worth exploring.

"You can't shut everything down," Crews said.

Kanter denounced the idea.

He said it is a radical notion that is not backed by the White House or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the Cortez bill cleared the Senate, many House Republicans want to go further.

Rep. Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican who heads the lower chamber’s GOP delegation, said Cortez’s bill will be difficult to get through the House without changes. 

For one, some House Republicans want to retain the ability to cancel a public health emergency with only one chamber, keeping their petitions in play.

More broadly, Miguez indicated House Republicans want the ability to approve or reject – or at least modify – Edwards’ executive orders. Those orders, which have continued unabated since March, have instituted a range of restrictions on businesses and daily life, mandating masks, keeping many bars closed and limiting restaurants to reduced capacity. 

“Our constituents are speaking loud and clear. They want to open the economy,” Miguez said in an interview. 

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, who presented two of eight bills aimed at changing or giving the Legislature more authority over coronavirus rules in a House committee Wednesday, said his legislation would let lawmakers roll back what he sees as regulations that have gone too far.

“My constituents are telling me they feel like their rights are being violated,” McFarland said. “That we are an overreaching government today. That our executive branch has gone beyond its intent.” 

All eight of the bills heard in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee – most of which give the Legislature the ability to reject Edwards’ orders or modify them by stripping out certain components – are scheduled for a vote Thursday, along with Cortez's bill.  

Sen. Patrick McMath, a co-author of Cortez’s legislation, argued their approach respects the separation of powers by conceding the governor the power to issue emergency orders, as is normally done in disasters. 

The legislation creates an oversight board and requires the governor to give them advance notice of his rules. 

“Oversight is extremely powerful,” McMath said. 

It’s not yet clear what will give between the two chambers. And Edwards has already indicated he opposes giving the Legislature a say over his decisions. Republicans in the House don’t have enough votes by themselves to override a veto.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, has also filed a resolution that would nullify the emergency order in its entirety. That approach is nearly identical to the petitions circulating the House. 

Schexnayder on Wednesday said that measure is a “tool in the toolbox” that will serve as a negotiating instrument. Several Republicans have said nullifying the entire order is a “nuclear option” of last resort. 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.