As Gov. John Bel Edwards, Attorney General Jeff Landry and the Legislature duke it out over who has the authority to enact — and to repeal — coronavirus restrictions, Louisiana is in limbo.
It likely will be up to the courts to sort out whether the state’s coronavirus restrictions remain in place, as Edwards says they do, or whether they’re on a seven-day break, as Landry says is happening. But how much of a difference the courts’ rulings will make in how Louisianians approach the virus, even if all restrictions are stripped, is still up for debate.
Leaders in East Baton Rouge, Ascension, New Orleans and Jefferson parishes have all said they plan to keep coronavirus restrictions in place through local ordinances, with some saying they won’t change them unless ordered to do so by a court. Lafayette has no local restrictions in place, though the city-parish is still following the governor’s orders for now.
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After eight months of pandemic living, some Americans appear to be making their own decisions about how to deal with the virus, regardless of what political leaders tell them. The research so far suggests that the rules politicians impose and repeal are a factor — but hardly the only one — in the risk calculus that people use to decide how much to venture out. They are also likely to pay attention to other factors, such as news about the virus’s recent trendline.
A new report from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where coronavirus restrictions have been mostly lifted and new cases are surging, says that “mobility patterns track community infection rates more closely than they track the imposition or expiration of official orders.”
“People have kind of made up their minds about what they’re going to do and how cautious they’re going to be,” said Dr. Thomas Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida who has done modeling and forecasting for outbreaks there.
Even before the move to strip Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions in Louisiana, plenty of people were flouting his policies, noted Dr. Stephen Murphy, a disaster management expert and professor at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
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But lots of other people have followed the rules to the letter. So even if the courts side with Landry and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a one-week lifting of all coronavirus policies in Louisiana might not persuade people that it’s safe to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles.
Take Florida, for example, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, lifted all state-imposed restrictions on businesses about a month ago. Individual counties like Miami-Dade kept mask orders in place despite no enforcement mechanism, while others have continued to push some virus restrictions.
Just as the Tennessee researchers found, Hladish said he has not seen a close causal relationship in Florida between the course of the virus and related restrictions. In the spring, he used cellphone data to show that Floridians were already largely staying home on their own, before DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order. After an April lockdown and a May reopening, Florida saw increased testing, a gradual increase in cases and, eventually, a major increase in deaths. But the timeline suggested Floridians were making their own decisions, not hanging on the governor’s every word.
“That didn’t happen as quickly as we would have expected if it was purely driven by lifting the stay-at-home order,” Hladish said.
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Florida’s coronavirus numbers receded by late summer but have started climbing again in recent weeks, as cases explode worldwide. The U.S. set a record for single-day coronavirus cases on Oct. 29, with more than 86,600 new cases confirmed.
So far, Louisiana has been lucky to avoid the fall spike sweeping the country. Murphy thinks that’s at least in part due to “the guidance and the leadership already in place.”
Edwards has warned of a likely uptick in cases if the petition from House Republicans, which calls to end the public health emergency for seven days, goes into place.
The fight between him and Landry has also left business owners confused about how strict they need to be in enforcing coronavirus rules. Baton Rouge attorney Bryan Jeansonne, who has advised many firms on the restrictions, said business owners need to look more broadly than just the state’s advisories.
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Lawmakers passed a host of measures this summer that shield businesses, restaurants and others from coronavirus-related lawsuits in Louisiana. But those measures stipulate that businesses must comply with federal, state and local regulations to qualify.
“Small businesses might think that because the governor’s order was terminated for a week, they don’t have to follow those rules,” Jeansonne said. “That can really create a problem. If you’re a business owner, you need to still be following the local emergency order and the CDC guidance.”
Among those guidelines: mask mandates, which may remain in place in select parishes even if Edwards’ statewide mask order is lifted.
Vanderbilt researchers this week released new data about the effect that mask mandates have had on hospitalization rates in Tennessee. Hospitals whose patients primarily come from areas without mask mandates have seen much more crowding compared with those that draw from areas with mask requirements, their data showed.
The patients are younger this time. Their course of treatment involves a new cocktail of drugs, and their ventilator settings have changed.
The Vanderbilt report cautions that masks are not a silver bullet; every region of Tennessee has seen hospitalizations pick up since October began. And the researchers also noted that parts of Tennessee with mask requirements have also seen other changes in behavior that could have limited the virus’s spread — like people moving around less.
“An important take-away from this analysis is that areas with virus mitigation strategies — including but not limited to masking requirements — have seen lower growth in hospitalizations since the summer months,” the Vanderbilt researchers wrote. “Hospitals in these areas are in a much better position to serve the entire spectrum of community health needs, not just COVID-19 patients.”
The scientists also used cellphone data to track whether restaurants and bars saw a surge in business after most of Tennessee in late September removed all coronavirus restrictions. Their findings were similar to Hladish’s in Florida: When coronavirus cases have surged in Tennessee, residents have taken it upon themselves to cut back on going out, even when the doors to restaurants and bars are flung open.
Staff writers Sam Karlin and Megan Wyatt contributed to this report.