NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In parts of Louisiana, business owners are cautiously looking forward to slight relaxations of statewide rules set up to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
But those changes, which Gov. John Bel Edwards said could begin Friday, won’t be taking place in New Orleans, though the governor cited it as meeting federal guidelines for a wider reopening.
Edwards has extended Louisiana’s stay-at-home order through May 15, with tweaks starting Friday to include letting people eat meals packaged to go at outdoor restaurant tables with no servers and letting mall stores begin curbside service.
Edwards has said localities can enact rules tighter than the state’s. And New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a statement Monday night saying the city’s stricter rules will continue through May 15. That includes no outdoor dining at restaurants, spokesman Beau Tidwell said in an email Tuesday.
“As Governor Edwards made clear … it is absolutely critical for the safety of our people that residents continue to STAY HOME at this time, and not move prematurely to resume public activity,” Cantrell’s statement said.
New Orleans has had about 6,400 of the state’s 27,300 COVID-19 cases, and 410 of the 1,758 deaths from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the state health department reported Tuesday. Neighboring Jefferson Parish has seen 6,100 cases and 340 deaths. More than 17,000 people statewide are presumed recovered, the department said.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. But for others, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Nick Hufft, who owns Curbside hamburger restaurant in Baton Rouge, said he was excited by the possibility of outdoor seating but wasn’t sure if his courtyard will open Friday, The Advocate reported.
“We are going to take the proper protocol to make sure we are ready to go. We’re not going to rush that,” he said. “First and foremost, the safety of our guests is top priority to us.”
Even widely spaced outdoor tables will allow more diners, putting more people back to work, Hufft said. “We’ve got too many good people not to give it a go,” he said.
Edwards said the New Orleans area’s falling rates of infections, hospitalization and testing capacity meet White House criteria for reopening, but those indicators continue to rise in the Baton Rouge area, northeast Louisiana and Acadiana.
Nonetheless, the changes to be allowed Friday mean “many businesses are able to, and should, safely and smartly return to commerce,” Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp said in an emailed statement.
Edwards said that if Louisiana’s infection rate keeps falling, he expects to begin loosening the reins on May 16, letting churches and more retailers open at one-quarter of their legal occupancy rates. Some restaurant dine-in services also would be allowed at 25% of their legal maximum.
“Small business owners are going to look at that and say, ’It’s not worth my time or cost to get to that level to reopen.′ So they’ll stay closed or with curbside service” said Dawn Starns, Louisiana director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Until mid-May, however, Edwards’ March 23 order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery and closing casinos, gyms, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and salons will largely remain in place.
Businesses allowed to stay open during the virus outbreak have shown they can take steps to protect the public, and more should be allowed to do so now, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack said in an emailed statement.
Edwards said he consulted infectious disease specialists and other public health experts, as Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation for confirmed virus cases per capita. The Democratic governor said they used the White House guidelines for phased reopening, and Louisiana doesn’t yet meet the first phase.
Edwards’ first small step began Monday, allowing “time-sensitive” elective medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, biopsies and dental procedures.
CHRISTUS Shreveport-Bossier Health System is scheduling such patients for treatment at branches in Shreveport, Bossier and Coushatta, Dr. Steen Trawick, the system’s chief executive officer and chief medical officer, told The Times of Shreveport.
“All of the other medical conditions that these patients have had, they just haven’t gone away; they’ve just been smoldering,” Trawick said.
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