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Gov. Edwards Loosens COVID Restrictions, Lifts Mask Mandate In Schools

Aubri Juhasz
Students arrive at Foundation Preparatory Charter School in Gentilly. Oct. 12, 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he is extending his statewide public health emergency but lifting nearly all of his remaining coronavirus restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate in Louisiana classrooms.

Edwards said the lighter restrictions are the result of lower coronavirus transmission rates in the state and the wide availability of three safe and effective coronavirus vaccines.

“Masks will be required in educational settings until the end of the current academic semester, beginning with summer programs for this year,” Edwards said, adding that individual school districts will still be able to set their own mask policies.

Masks are still required on public transit and in all licensed healthcare facilities and prisons.

Edwards lifted all restrictions on business capacity and crowd size.

“There’s no doubt we are in a better place today than we’ve been at any point thus far in the pandemic,” Edwards said. “And that is because of medical science.”

State Health Officer Joe Kanter said is pleased that COVID-19-related hospitalizations have reached their lowest point since the start of the pandemic, but he urged Louisianans to stay vigilant.

“Turning a corner doesn’t mean that you’re off the road,” Kanter said. “There is still reason to be careful and vigilant — particularly if you haven’t been fully vaccinated — but a return to normalcy is important after 15 very, very long months.”

Kanter said state health officials have “let the virus lead” and have recommended tightened or loosened restrictions in the state as case counts and infection rates waxed and waned. He said those officials will take the same approach this summer, and restrictions on businesses and mask mandates could be re-imposed if the state sees another summertime surge of the virus.

“The virus is in charge here,” Kanter said. “As adults, we just need to accept that.”

Masks are still strongly recommended for individuals who have not yet been vaccinated.

All local businesses are “allowed and empowered” to set their own mask mandates, Edwards said, adding that people are required to follow business owners’ policies on private property.

With only 31 percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Louisiana lags far behind the national average. Only Mississippi and Alabama have completed fewer vaccinations per capita, according to CDC data.

And coronavirus vaccines have only recently been made available to school aged children. Edwards estimated that almost 8,600 children between the ages of 12 and 15 have received at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since it was approved for use in that age group nearly two weeks ago.

Most school districts have announced their intention to return to in-person learning in the upcoming school year. Many have indicated that masking requirements will be a key tool in ensuring student and staff safety.

Last week, New Orleans Public School officials announced district schools would not be required to offer virtual learning options starting this fall, pushing for a return to in-person instruction.

“At this time, our school community plans to keep COVID-19 safety measures, such as masks, CDC-advised social distancing, and hand sanitizer stations, in place next year,” district representatives said in a press release.

New Orleans city government still requires masks in K-12 schools. Beau Tidwell, director of communications for the City of New Orleans, issued this written statement following Edwards announcement Tuesday afternoon:

“There are NO CHANGES to the guidance in place for New Orleans at this time. Our public health leadership is reviewing the new guidance from the state, and we anticipate further announcements later in the week."

Education Reporter Aubri Juhasz contributed to this report.