Louisiana ordered back to modified Phase Two, Coronavirus cases surge

Cases of the coronavirus are surging and hospitalizations are rising in Louisiana. Governor John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he will order the state back to Phase Two, but a modified version of the plan. New restrictions go into effect today, the day before Thanksgiving.

Many bars will have to close and most businesses will go back to 50% occupancy under the new restrictions. The governor is making the move due to hospital officials telling him that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed if the trend doesn’t slow down. Officials are worried that the Thanksgiving holiday will accelerate the spread of the virus as families and friends come together to celebrate.

Under the new rules, gatherings will be limited to 75 indoors and 150 outdoors, or 25% occupancy at event spaces. Restaurants, retailers and other businesses will move from 75% to 50% occupancy. Bars in parishes with over 5% test positivity must close to indoor consumption unless they have a restaurant conditional permit, in which case they can operate at 50%.

Edwards said in his press conference announcing the changes that Louisiana is “in for a rough patch.”

“Because of the trajectory we’ve been on… It is imperative we take action and we take action now,” Edwards said.

“There are no magic tricks to be worked here. The only way you stop the surge is by these restrictions and mitigation measures,” he added. “If somebody had presented me another option, a better option about flattening the curve, I would have taken it….It doesn’t exist.”

Only a few parishes (counties) have a low enough positivity rate to allow bars to remain open. Bars that do not serve food must shut down, though they will be allowed to remain open to operate outdoor seating of 50 people or fewer. The governor indicated the restrictions will remain in place through the end of the year. If trends don’t improve, the Democrat is willing to go further in restrictions. Two areas sacred in Louisiana remain unaddressed in Governor Edwards’ press conference – church services and football games.

Edwards avoided wading into some of the more politically fraught parts of his restrictions, leaving settings like churches and football undisturbed. The governor didn’t touch Tiger Stadium, where LSU has continued to welcome tens of thousands of fans–the school is allowed to host up to 25% capacity–to home football games. And the order doesn’t cancel high school football as teams head into playoffs. Instead, high school football stadiums will be allowed to welcome 25% of fans into the stadiums. Some parishes had gained the ability to fill 50% of their stadiums before the new restrictions.

He also left decisions on schools to local school districts. And churches will remain at 75% capacity.

Some businesses that must go back to 50% occupancy now include gyms, fitness centers, restaurants, coffee shops, cafes, casinos, video poker businesses, and non-essential retail stores. The governor encourages workers who can work from home.

The surge in new weekly increases can’t be explained away by increases in testing. As of Tuesday, the number of new cases spiked north of 11,000. That is an increase of 155% from the same period a month ago. The positivity rate is up 85% over the same period. State officials are most concerned about the rise in hospitalizations. And, if hospital beds are full, patients who need health care unrelated to the coronavirus will put it off and not receive it. Patients suffering from heart attacks and strokes may not receive timely care. Chemotherapy may be postponed. Elective surgeries are, too.

Most concerning to state health officials is hospitalizations reached 1,000 for the first time since August 21. At the most recent peak, during a summer wave of infections that prompted the governor to mandate masks statewide and shutter bars, hospitalizations reached 1,600. On Tuesday, the number continued to rise, to 1,052.

The White House coronavirus task force issued a report to Louisiana this week with dire warnings to flatten the curve with “significant behavior change”. The advisory sounds familiar because we hear it so often. Problems with mitigation arise because people are simply burnt out on worrying about the virus. People get lax in their preventive behavior with COVID fatigue.

“Ensure masks at all times in public, increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity in public and private indoor spaces, and ensure every American understands the clear risks of ANY family or friend interactions outside of their immediate household indoors without masks,” the report said.

A favorable reaction to Governor Edwards’ press conference came from Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis. In the office since last July, he agrees that stronger restrictions are necessary now to move forward. For those holding holiday gatherings, the mayor asks that people be responsible in their decision making.

“I think like most citizens we had to move backwards because of the rising COVID cases in the state of Louisiana, but the only way out of this to move forward is to adhere to these restrictions,” Ellis said.

“If we want to help bars get back to where they can operate normally, if we want to help businesses to where they can operate normally, it will take a collective effort,” Ellis said.

“I understand we want to gather and we all want to get together. It’s who we are. We’re social creatures and there’s a need for connection since we’ve had it lost over the last year, but let’s be responsible about it,” Ellis said.