BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Saying Louisiana has made significant strides in combating the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he will begin loosening restrictions this weekend on churches, restaurants, salons and gyms, moving the state away from a “stay-at-home” position he enacted in late March.
The new regulations take effect Friday, largely in line with the first phase of reopening as envisioned under the White House guidelines provided to states. Businesses and churches newly allowed to open will be limited to one-quarter of their previous capacity, and employees working around customers will have to wear masks.
Restaurants and coffee shops can reopen inside seating and table service. Barbers and salons can resume color services and cuts. Museums, zoos, aquariums and movie theaters can also resume operations, and gamblers will be allowed to return to casinos and video poker sites. But none can exceed the 25% capacity level.
Tattoo parlors, spas, amusement parks and children’s museums will remain closed. Edwards cautioned that high-risk individuals should stay home as much as possible, and others should wear masks and stay distant from people who aren’t in their households.
“We are not back to life as we knew it before COVID-19. There is a new normal,” he said.
The restrictions still in place will last until June 5.
The Democratic governor said he decided to lessen the constraints he enacted in late March because Louisiana, one of the nation’s early hot spots for the coronavirus, is seeing consistent declines in new virus cases and hospitalization rates for COVID-19 patients.
“The people of Louisiana have worked really hard since this public health emergency was first announced in order to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Edwards said.
Fears of overwhelming hospital capacity and running out of ventilators for the most fragile patients have subsided. And Edwards said the state is taking the needed steps to increase testing and to hire contact tracers who can track the people who have tested positive for the virus and those they’ve been in contact with. Those people could then be isolated to slow the rate of infections.
Edwards’ current stay-at-home order is credited with lessening the scale of the virus outbreak. But as May began, Edwards has faced increasing pressure from Republican elected officials to start reopening more of the economy.
Louisiana’s economy has been decimated by business closures enacted to slow the disease’s spread. More than 310,000 people already have qualified for unemployment benefits, according to the state labor department.
Business organizations cheered the reopening announcement, though some worried about the 25% occupancy limitations.
“We are glad to see Louisiana begin the process of getting back to work. A closed economy is a broken economy and the economic ramifications of the last month are now obvious to everyone,” Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack said in a statement.
For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.
Nearly 32,000 people in Louisiana have tested positive for the virus, and 2,242 have died from the COVID-19 disease, according to the state health department.
Restaurants had been waiting for word if they could offer more than outside seating with no table service.
Kristin Alfandre’s family has owned Mason’s Grill in Baton Rouge for nearly 22 years. They’ve continued doing takeout and delivery orders or more recently, outdoor dining, but business is still down. Alfandre said as they prepare to reopen indoor dining Friday that they will be paying close attention to things such as guidelines on servers wearing gloves. They’ve already done the math to figure out how many patrons they can fit in their front and back dining rooms.
“We’re going to make it work though. I am very positive,” she said. “We definitely appreciate the ability to open up inside.”
But in New Orleans, famed chef Frank Brigsten simply isn’t ready to reopen his namesake creole restaurant. He said one reason is that he couldn’t come up with a workable plan for 25% seating in the renovated shotgun house, which has a maximum capacity of 55.
“I’ve been looking at the seating at Brigsten’s for weeks,” he said.
But even if the governor had said restaurants could open “100 percent, I still wouldn’t do it,” Brigsten said, citing a concern that it is still too risky for staff and customers. “It’s just not safe.”
Cities can enact stricter guidelines than the state’s. The New Orleans mayor is slated to announce her reopening plans on Tuesday.
Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.