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Gov. John Bel Edwards lifts his mask to speak at a press conference updating COVID-19 restrictions, Tuesday, March 30, 2021 at the State Capitol. Though he eased some virus restrictions, the mask mandate and social distancing remain in effect. He lifted capacity limits on bars, restaurants, salons, gyms, and casinos, while maintaining some limits on crowd sizes at larger venues and sporting events.

With coronavirus vaccines now widely available, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday the end to Louisiana's statewide mask mandate, returning power to businesses and local governments to set their own face covering restrictions.

Masks will still be required at K-12 schools, early childhood education centers, colleges and universities, hospitals, nursing homes, on public transit and at some state government buildings, according to an order issued by the Louisiana Department of Health.

The loosened restrictions come as Louisiana settles into another week of near-historic lows in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Meanwhile, vaccinations are steadily climbing, with more than a quarter of Louisianans fully inoculated as of Monday.

Edwards repeatedly warned the public Tuesday not to mistake the easing of the mask mandate as a sign that the pandemic is over, hinting that restrictions could return if cases of the deadly virus once again spiral out of control.

“We are not on a one-way street moving away from the pandemic. It is very much a two-way street and we do not want to go in the other direction,” Edwards said. 

Even as he lifted restrictions, Edwards continued to urge the public to wear face coverings and said that state government buildings under his purview will continue to require them. Other statewide officials will be able to opt their buildings out if they choose to do so. 

"I will continue to wear a mask when in public when I am close to folks. I think it's the right thing to do for public health. It's also the respectful thing to do," Edwards said. "We know that masks work. The science is clear." 

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Edwards first implemented a statewide mask mandate in July 2020, after a summer surge in coronavirus cases nudged him toward more stringent restrictions. Now, 10 months later, the onus is back on private businesses and local governments to decide whether they want to implement a mask mandate. 

New Orleans officials said Tuesday they're weighing changes to their own mask mandate, which requires face coverings in most public situations, but said revisions would not come for several days. Meanwhile, officials in St. Tammany parish said they wouldn't impose mandates and leaders in East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes said the requirement will only extend to certain government buildings. 

Edwards' announcement Tuesday came hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that fully vaccinated or not, people can safely go maskless outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household. The CDC said that masks should always be worn in large crowds of strangers and that unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks at small outdoor gatherings that include other unvaccinated people. 

Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said that in absolute numbers, the amount of COVID-19 circulating in Louisiana is considerably less than at any other time during the pandemic, but repeatedly noted that "low risk does not mean no risk." He added that the single best way to protect yourself and your family is to get vaccinated.

Louisiana's vaccination rate has lagged the nation in recent weeks, with 32% of its population having initiated the vaccine series compared to a countrywide average of 42%. Still, Kanter said Louisiana is doing better than most states in controlling the spread of the virus, ranking in the bottom third of all states for new cases, hospitalizations and the percentage of its tests coming back positive. 

The updated proclamation, which goes into effect Wednesday, also allows large venues to open up to 75% occupancy. Those venues can up that occupancy to 100% if they require masks. Outdoor events will no longer have capacity restrictions and live music can take place if performers on stage are 10 feet away from the audience. 

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater