BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday that he will ease public gathering restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 when current restrictions expire Friday, but he did not immediately detail exactly which restrictions would be lifted.
“Phase 3 is not a lifting of all restrictions, it’s not some announcement that COVID-19 is no longer in Louisiana. It is,” said Edwards. “We’re still number one in the country in cases per capita but we’ve done better of late.”
The governor said more specifics would be coming Friday on the new order, along with details on the criteria used to make the decision. However, he did confirm that the mask mandate will stay in place.
The announcement comes as the rate of new cases, percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations have declined. And it follows Edwards’ publicly expressed concerns about another surge in cases following the return of students to school and college campuses and the recent Labor Day holiday weekend.
“I will tell you that, for reasons that I’ll get into tomorrow, this was probably the hardest decision that I’ve made thus far. Not based on the data itself, but based on all of the activities that have been going on in the state of Louisiana recently that could influence where we are two or three weeks from now that isn’t reflected in the data upon which I’ve made my decision.”
Edwards noted that six months to the day of the first confirmed coronavirus case in Louisiana, cases in the state surpassed 155,000 total cases Thursday. The Louisiana Department of Health said 499 new cases have been reported since Wednesday. The state is also approaching the 5,000-mark with 21 more deaths bringing the total as of Thursday to 4,991.
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The governor made the announcement in a media briefing at 10:30 a.m. about the state’s response to COVID-19 after hosting a Unified Command Group meeting.
The current Phase 2 order has been in place since June 5 after three extensions. Under the order expanded when it was extended in July, bars have been closed to on-site consumption, restaurants have been limited to 50% capacity for in-person dining, indoor gatherings have been limited to 50 people or less. There have also been occupancy limits on gyms, salons, and other businesses deemed non-essential and masks have been mandated in public whenever social distancing is not possible.
The state was an early hot spot for outbreaks of the new coronavirus in the spring and saw a resurgence in the summer.
White House guidelines for Phase Three openings include allowing bars to operate with “increased standing room occupancy.” But states are free to adopt their own regulations and it was unclear if Edwards would lift the closure order on bars in the state — a closure being fought in federal court by groups of bar owners in southeast and southwest Louisiana.
The easing would not necessarily affect New Orleans, where Mayor LaToya Cantrell has consistently instituted somewhat tougher restrictions than the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.