When Gov. John Bel Edwards stepped in front of the cameras for his latest coronavirus update Wednesday, he didn’t sugarcoat things.
After considerable success in battling the pandemic’s early onslaught, "we've had three weeks now of going in the wrong direction" on cases and hospitalizations, Edwards said. Louisiana has the fifth highest number of total diagnoses per capita in the U.S., according to the administration, and 25,000 active cases, up from 10,000 in mid-May.
“No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, to put it bluntly, COVID-19 is probably more present, more rampant in Louisiana today than it has ever been," he said. “We have a statewide epidemic. It’s no longer one region or two regions."
But despite all that real talk, there’s one thing that Edwards refused to do: Mandate that Louisianans who go out in public and can’t social distance from the people around them wear masks.
It’s time for him to do so.
The gradual reopening of public life in Louisiana has turned frightening. Now in the second of what was envisioned as a three-phase process, the state has seen clusters of cases in bars, industrial settings, restaurants, food processing sites, and colleges — places where people gather in close quarters and don’t always cover their faces.
Louisiana isn’t alone in facing a new surge following the loosening of restrictions, and other states have imposed mandates. They include Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott initially banned local governments from penalizing non-maskers, but reversed himself and ordered face coverings in counties with 20 or more cases once the numbers started skyrocketing. Late last week, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, another Republican, mandated masks in 13 hard-hit counties.
In truth, Louisianans in some of the state’s major population centers, led by both Democrats and Republicans, already live under such orders. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins have mandated masks (Shreveport's order was temporarily suspended due to a court challenge), as have Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng and Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn. Others, including Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory and St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper, have not, despite expert advice that this is the best way to curb the deadly disease's spread.
This patchwork approach doesn’t make sense. As Edwards said, the epidemic is statewide. The virus doesn’t respect parish lines any more than it recognizes a potential target’s political leanings. Only consistent policies will do the trick.
As for Edwards, he’s argued until now that mandates are hard to enforce statewide and best handled by local government, even as he’s stayed diligently on message in explaining that face coverings and social distancing are the most effective tools to protect others from infection. If he changed course, he’d surely face blowback from conservatives who’d claim that the Democratic governor is infringing on their freedom.
That’s the price of asking people to make a relatively minor sacrifice in order to save lives and to be able to more safely venture out. We think it’s worth it.