BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions lifted slightly Monday as nonemergency medical services resumed, and Gov. John Bel Edwards readied to announce the details of his “very gradual effort” to loosen additional constraints enacted to stem the virus outbreak.
The Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order, which took effect March 23, expires Thursday. In a heavily anticipated announcement, Edwards was expected Monday afternoon to release specifics of what restrictions he’ll continue into May and which ones he’ll end. His current order banned gatherings of more than 10 people, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and closed shopping malls, casinos, gyms, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and salons.
His first small step began Monday when “time-sensitive” elective medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, biopsies and dental procedures, were allowed to restart. The allowance is for procedures that need to be done to keep conditions from getting worse and putting a person’s health more at risk. Clinics that resume the procedures have to adhere to distancing guidelines and have a five-day supply of masks, gowns and other protective equipment.
The governor has tried to manage expectations about what comes next, suggesting his plans for the start of May won’t be a return to a pre-virus normal with restaurants and bars jammed with people and stores filled to capacity. He’s acted more cautiously than some other Southern governors.
Instead, he’s warned Louisiana residents to expect to wear masks when near others, to continue to remain distanced and to have limits on public gatherings. He’s said whichever businesses are allowed to reopen could face occupancy limits, distancing requirements and mask mandates.
“I want people to have their expectations in check, because phase one is a very gradual easing of current restrictions,” Edwards said Thursday, as he talked of the looming announcement. “It’s not as if we’re going to be opening just going back to where we before this pandemic struck. That’s not the case.”
Edwards has so far rejected calls from some Republican officials to allow a parish-by-parish approach to reopening. And he has been cool to the idea of a regional approach, although he has said local officials can enact stronger rules than the state’s. In New Orleans, where more than 400 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s emergency order, which shuts down nonessential businesses and bans public gatherings, doesn’t expire until May 16.
Louisiana became one of the United States’ hot spots for virus outbreaks in March, but has seen encouraging signs in combating the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. The rates of new infections and hospitalizations have slowed, and fewer patients are on ventilators. But Louisiana has a higher at-risk population, making decisions about how to relax restrictions trickier.
Louisiana’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 1,697 on Monday, and more than 27,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, according to the state health department. More than 17,000 people are presumed recovered, the department says.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Edwards said his decision on how to loosen virus-related restrictions hinge on access to widespread testing and to “contact tracers” who can pinpoint people who encountered those who test positive, are at greater risk of infection and should be isolated. The White House’s guidance for a phased approach to reopening stresses the need for both.
While Louisiana’s testing rates is one of the nation’s highest per capita, it still hasn’t reached the 200,000 tests per month level Edwards is seeking. The state’s team of contact tracers also remains far below the level state officials believe they need to adequately lessen the risks of new spikes in virus cases.
Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this report from New Orleans.