SUBSCRIBE NOW

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards loosens COVID restrictions; bars get small concession

Greg Hilburn
Monroe News-Star
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards talks about Hurricane Laura during an August 25, 2020 press conference.

Louisiana restaurants, retailers, churches and schools can expand operations in Gov. John Bel Edwards' new Phase 3 COVID order, while bars in parishes where the infection is low might be able to open with restrictions and limited hours.

The latest proclamation that goes into effect Friday continues to include a statewide mask mandate and will last 28 days.

Edwards said indoor and outdoor gatherings like wedding parties can move from a limit of 50 people to 50% capacity up to 250 people in Phase 3. Live music will still not be allowed indoors.

Nursing home visits remain prohibited, but Edwards said the Louisiana Department of Health will begin a pilot program that allows outdoor visits in parishes where there is a 5% positivity rate or less and at facilities with zero cases in the last 14 days.

Though the governor announced Thursday he would advance the state into some form of Phase 3, Edwards waited until Friday to provide specifics on his latest proclamation.

Edwards said his biggest concern moving forward "is the potential for Labor Day to disrupt the progress we've been seeing." Louisiana suffered a summer spike of COVID-19 following the Memorial Day holiday when people were lax with mitigation measures.

"We've had positive trends, but I'm concerned about what's not reflected in the data, which is why this is the most difficult decision I've had to make (concerning the pandemic," Edwards said.

Bars

The biggest economic losers have been bar owners, who were forbidden from offering on-premises service.

Friday:Louisiana's COVID death toll tops 5,000 as state enters Phase 3

Edwards' new order will allow bars to open in parishes where with a positivity rate of 5% or below for two straight weeks if a parish government opts in.

Dr. Alex Billioux of the Louisiana Department of Health said only five of 64 parishes are meeting that rate now: Bienville; Jefferson Davis; Orleans; St. John; and Plaquemines.

Bars that are allowed to open will be limited to 25% indoor capacity capacity up to 50 customers with the same limits for outdoor capacity in parishes that qualify and opt in. Bars will be able to offer seated table-side service only.

The order prohibits patrons 21 or younger from entering bars.

Latest Louisiana-specific White House recommendations say Louisiana should "consider a further reduction in hours and occupancy limits in bars and restaurants in university parishes and anywhere university and college students gather if cases begin to rise."

Final drinks must delivered by 10 p.m. with a closing time of 11 p.m.

Edwards' Phase 2 order withstood two challenges from bar owners in federal court and another in state court.

But Jimmy Faircloth, the attorney for the two federal cases representing bar owners in Acadiana and Houma, filed an appeal combining both lawsuits in the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court granted a motion Thursday to expedite the appeal. "I think this is a clear sign the court wants to hear our case," Faircloth said.

Schools

Meanwhile, Louisiana School Superintendent Cade Brumley told USA Today Network Friday Phase 3 will allow systems to increase their school bus occupancy from 50% to 75%, allow group sizes to expand from 25 to 50 and allow students to participate in band and choir.

"We've been successful in Phase 2 and our education community is prepared for Phase 3," Brumley said. "I definitely think it's a positive."

Brumley said each system and in some cases individual schools will ultimately determine how they move into Phase 3.

"'I've told our system leaders to work with their communities, teachers and parents so they can make a thoughtful transition while still following safety and mitigation protocols," he said.

Restaurants, salons and other businesses and churches will be able to increase their occupancy from 50% to 75%.

Sports venues must limit the number of fans to 25% capacity.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.