(AP) — As he sets the stage for the gradual reopening of sectors of Louisiana’s shuttered economy, Gov. John Bel Edwards is trying to prepare people for an uncomfortable reality: Life isn’t returning to normal anytime soon amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The Democratic governor consistently hits this theme in his press briefings about the pandemic’s impact, even as he describes encouraging signs in Louisiana’s work to lessen the spread and keep from exceeding the state’s ability to provide health care to those infected.
“We’re not going back to normal until such time as there’s a vaccine that’s available for everybody,” Edwards said. “We don’t know when that’s going to be … In fact, they’re saying it’s not going to come in all likelihood until some time in 2021.”
The governor’s already offering a picture of what precautionary measures people can expect when his stay-at-home order gives way to more freedom of movement in the new world of a pandemic without clearly effective treatments or a vaccine.
Expect reduced occupancy and wide spaces between tables in restaurants with masked and gloved wait staff, whenever those restaurants can restart sit-down service. Don’t be surprised at temperature checks to enter public buildings and businesses. Hang onto those masks, because people will be covering their faces for a long time. And people at greater risk for severe symptoms from the virus or death are going to have limit their outings.
Louisiana’s stay-at-home order expires April 30. Edwards said he’ll replace that with a new order that “won’t look like what we have in place now.” Exactly what that means remains unclear. Among Louisiana’s current restrictions, Edwards has limited restaurants to takeout and delivery; shuttered businesses deemed nonessential such as malls, gyms, hair salons and bars; and banned public gatherings of 10 people or more.
As Edwards looks to May, he said he’s working with public health officials, using guidance released by the Trump administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine how “to balance the imperatives around public health and safety on the one hand with reengaging the economy and getting people back to work on the other.”
Calls have grown louder, particularly from Republicans, to let Louisiana’s stay-at-home order expire, or to significantly loosen its restrictions.
When he appeared at a news conference with Edwards, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise didn’t disagree with the governor’s cautious approach. Scalise also stressed a need to balance safety with economic recovery: “We have to figure out how we’re going to live with this disease.”
For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.
Louisiana has seen encouraging signs in combating the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, with slowing rates of new infections and new hospitalizations, and fewer patients on ventilators. Edwards credits people remaining physically distanced from others. But Louisiana continues to have a higher death rate than most other states, making decisions about how to relax restrictions trickier.
Edwards wants to see more testing, both testing of people with symptoms and testing that looks for antibodies indicating a person has had the virus. But Edwards acknowledged he can’t wait until Louisiana — which has one of the highest per-capita testing rates in the country — reaches the full testing levels he wants.
Health officials are working on modeling to inform the reopening approach. Dr. Alex Billioux, head of the state Office of Public Health, said Louisiana is trying to reach a place where it can quickly isolate people who test positive for the virus and then do “contact tracing” to identify people they encountered who might be at risk of infection.
Edwards has offered a limited outline so far about the steps he’ll take to reopen economic sectors. First up, he said, will be the restarting of non-emergency medical services, such as colonoscopies and knee replacements. Additional plans for May will be announced soon, he said, promising it would be released days ahead of the expiration of his stay-at-home order.
And as he rewrites his restrictions, Edwards tries to prepare people: “We’re going to have a different way of life.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte