Gov. John Bel Edwards is extending his modified Phase 2 coronavirus restrictions through the holidays and into the new year.
The restrictions, which were set to expire Wednesday, will remain in effect through Jan. 13. They include a statewide mask mandate, limit most businesses to 50 percent occupancy, prohibit bars from serving people indoors, and impose 25 percent occupancy limits on wedding venues and high school sports stadiums. Churches are limited to 75 percent occupancy.
Edwards said many of the state’s coronavirus metrics have plateaued at a “very high level.” The governor said he was encouraged to see the state’s “percent positivity” over the last seven days decrease from 10.2 percent to 9.3 percent — below the 10 percent benchmark recommended by public health officials.
Hospitalizations remain dangerously high. As of Tuesday, 1,647 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — slightly above the point at which hospitalizations peaked during the summertime surge.
“It remains a very perilous situation for the state with respect to COVID,” Edwards said. “Even if we’re doing better, the case load, the hospitalizations, the deaths are at a very high level.”
The governor urged people not to travel or mix households as they celebrate Christmas and the New Year and not fuel the spread of a virus that has killed more than 7,158 Louisianans to date.
Edwards described the weight of that loss as “unfathomable.”
“This death toll is higher than the number of deaths caused by accidents, stroke and diabetes combined in Louisiana in 2017,” Edwards said. “It also means that as we head into this holiday period that there will be that many empty chairs in homes, around dinner tables.”
Edwards' plea comes as the state ramps up its immunization effort following federal regulators’ approval of a COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.
The state received 39,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week and expects an additional 28,275 doses from Pfizer and 79,500 doses from Moderna this week.
Slightly more than 22,000 frontline healthcare workers in the state have received their first doses so far.
Dr. Joseph Kanter, leader of the Louisiana Department of Health’s coronavirus response, said the availability of two safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines marks the “beginning of the end” of the pandemic, but said it would be months before a critical mass of individuals are immunized.
He warned people against changing their behavior prematurely.
“There is a ton of COVID in Louisiana,” Kanter said. “People need to take more mitigating measures — do more to protect themselves and their family than they ever have before — because this is the riskiest part of the pandemic for Louisiana. There’s no way around that.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Edwards is still locked in a legal battle with Attorney General Jeff Landry and Republican members of the state House of Representatives, who two months ago attempted to strip Edwards’ public health emergency declaration and nullify all of the coronavirus restrictions that accompany it.
Sixty five state representatives, availing themselves of a never-before-used process outlined in an obscure statute of Louisiana law, signed a petition to force Edwards to immediately end his public health emergency.
Edwards sued the lawmakers and asked the courts to nullify their petition and declare the law they used unconstitutional.
Last month, District Court Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge did just that. But on Monday the Louisiana Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court where it was first heard, after determining that Morvant prematurely weighed in on the constitutionality of the petition process.
The justices did not consider the merits of the case. They simply said that Morvant must first determine if the House members followed the petition process as outlined in state law before he could consider the constitutionality of the law itself.
Landry, who represented the House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and the GOP lawmakers in the case, hailed Monday’s ruling as a victory.
“Today’s action by the Supreme Court maintains that Louisiana is not a dictatorship,” Landry said in a press release Monday. “The wise course of action would be for the Governor to meet with the Legislature and establish common-sense guidelines which fall within the law.”
Edwards characterized the Supreme Court’s ruling as a procedural bump in the road, and said he expects the lower court to reaffirm its earlier ruling after a full hearing.