In their latest attempt to undermine Gov. John Bel Edwards’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of Republican state lawmakers is trying to resurrect a petition drive to end Louisiana’s public health emergency and lift a mask-wearing requirement for public school students.
Saying that they’re “very concerned about the physical and mental health” of Louisiana’s schoolchildren, 14 GOP lawmakers penned a letter Monday asking House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, to organize a meeting with state health officials so they can begin the process of unraveling the governor’s emergency order, which requires masks be worn indoors.
Lifting the mask mandate would result in “more people getting sick, more people going to the hospital and more people dying,” Edwards said Wednesday, after rolling up his sleeves at Baton Rouge General Mid City Hospital for both a COVID booster shot and a seasonal flu vaccine.
“We’re in a public health emergency. What good is it to pretend that we’re not?” Edwards said. “This is just further evidence that they don’t take it seriously, they don’t trust and respect science and that they’re willing to sacrifice the health and wellbeing of individuals and of the state at-large in order to pursue some sort of political agenda that, quite frankly, I can’t understand.”
Pediatricians and public health experts have repeatedly said that masks are necessary and important tools to protect children and their families from COVID-19, especially because vaccines aren’t currently available for those under the age of 12. The latest surge of the pandemic, which proved to be Louisiana’s deadliest, was disproportionately fueled by transmission among minors. Nine children have died from COVID in the fourth surge, pushing the pediatric death toll during the pandemic to 18.
Still, mask-wearing requirements in schools have sparked heated opposition among a vocal group of parents, some of whom have likened face coverings to “child abuse.” In August, they disrupted a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, causing the top school board to adjourn before considering a proposal that would have bucked the governor’s mandate and allowed school districts to decide on their own whether masks were necessary.
“Our constituents are upset and angry and are looking for us to act on their behalf,” the lawmakers wrote.
In their letter, the lawmakers also lauded State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley for his plan to allow school districts to let students exposed to COVID remain in the classroom. They called the move a “step in the right direction.”
But Edwards said Wednesday that Brumley’s decision “betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of a public health emergency.”
“If you believed that there were too many kids out of school because they were having to quarantine, that’s because there’s a lot of COVID in the schools,” Edwards said, adding that Brumley’s decision will only cause more students to get sick and miss school.
In seeking to overturn the governor’s mask mandate, lawmakers hope to use an obscure state law, passed in 2003 during the SARS pandemic, which allows a majority of either the state House or Senate to end a public health emergency.
But the effort faces an uphill battle.
When 65 GOP House members signed on to a petition back in October 2020 directing the governor to cancel his virus restrictions, they faced a series of legal battles.
Edwards, a Democrat, refused to follow through on the petition law, filing a lawsuit arguing that the statute was unconstitutional and that lawmakers didn’t abide by it anyway because they didn’t consult with “the public health authority” in making the decision.
A Baton Rouge district judge sided with Edwards, ruling that the statute was unconstitutional because it didn't involve both chambers of the Legislature, instead allowing the House or Senate to act on their own. The Louisiana Supreme Court later vacated that ruling, sending it back to the district court.
On Wednesday, after nearly a year of legal proceedings, the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge ruled that the lawsuit was moot, in part, because the petition lawmakers signed address a 30-day emergency order that had already expired.
Kicking off the latest petition drive, lawmakers in their letter asked Schexnayder to organize a hearing with health officials to meet the requirement in law that they first consult with the “public health authority.” For a venue, they recommended an already scheduled Oct. 8 meeting of the state House Committee on Health and Welfare.
It’s unclear if that will move forward. Schexnayder on Wednesday did not return a request for comment.
Edwards said he welcomed such a hearing, saying that it would be good for the lawmakers to “engage and listen to the overwhelming evidence of why the mitigation measures are necessary to protect the community.”
Still, the Democratic governor cast doubt on the lawmakers' willingness to take those facts to heart.
“These are the same people who promote ivermectin over vaccines,” he said, referring to a drug commonly used to deworm livestock that’s gained prominence on social media as a miracle cure for COVID, despite any evidence that it’s an effective treatment.
The lawmakers who signed the letter include Reps. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Foy Gadberry, R-West Monroe; Julie Emerson, R-Carenco; Beryl Amedee, R-Gray; Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales; Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck; Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice; Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Sherman Mack, R-Albany; Chuck Owen, R-Rosepine; Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs.