(The Center Square) – Louisiana House Republicans have revitalized a petition to overturn Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 emergency declaration, seeking to end restrictions on businesses and churches meant to control the spread of the disease.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican, circulated a similar petition in late April. That petition failed to garner majority support, possibly due to concerns about losing federal funds that Seabaugh said were unfounded.
Edwards has since loosened some of the restrictions, allowing some businesses that were closed to reopen and allowing others to have more people inside, though only up to 50 percent of normal capacity.
Seabaugh said the purpose of the economic restrictions was to avoid overwhelming the state’s health care system. He said that mission has been accomplished, claiming that hospitalizations are down. Hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 have been increasing in recent days, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
LDH reports 3,051 state residents with COVID-19 have died. As of noon Thursday, 53,415 cases had been confirmed and almost 40,000 of the confirmed patients are believed to have recovered. There were 653 patients in hospitals, and 77 of them were on ventilators.
“The goal was never to keep people from getting it,” he said, acknowledging that Rep. Reggie Bagala was killed by the illness. “That doesn’t affect the fact that this is the first time in human history we have quarantined healthy people.”
Healthy people in Louisiana are not “quarantined” by law, though people who have come in contact with COVID-19 patients are being asked by state officials to stay home voluntarily to avoid spreading the coronavirus. People generally are free to move about, though state officials are urging residents to maintain physical distance from people who are not part of their household and to wear masks in public.
Seabaugh also said “churches are being shut down.” Churches are not being shut down, though they have been asked to limit indoor capacity to half of what normally would be allowed, which Seabaugh acknowledged immediately after making his initial claim.
Rep. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat, noted the governor’s orders “never stopped any churches from having church.”
“What he did is make recommendations to those churches for the safety of the citizens of Louisiana,” she said. “We’re still having church. A lot of people still have not gone back into their facilities because they value people’s lives.”
A number of churches moved to online services when the restrictions on crowd sizes were announced.
“Yes, all of us want our businesses to profit,” Marcelle said. “Do we want people to die at the hands of COVID?”
Rep. Charles Owen, a Rosepine Republican, said he publicly complimented Edwards’ “strong leadership” during the early stages of the pandemic. He said a Republican colleague asked him not to praise the governor.
But he said his “patience as a team member” is running out. He complained about not getting notice about Edwards’ decisions about restrictions until shortly before they were announced.
“If the governor is going to keep going forward [with restrictions], he can go forward much better if he will include us in these decisions,” he said, adding that he had signed the petition.
Rep. Tammy Phelps, a Shreveport Democrat, pushed back against the notion expressed by some Republicans that the economy is not “reopened.”
“It may not be at the capacity some of you want, but everyone has a right to do what they want,” she said. “No one’s constitutional rights have been taken away.”
She accused some representatives of giving “misleading information” about the state of the pandemic and the restrictions.
“Some of you may not care about someone else’s life,” she said. “Some of us do.”
Louisiana law gives either body of the legislature, by a petition signed by the majority of members, to terminate a state of public health emergency “in consultation with the public health authority.” Louisiana’s Office of Public Health has recommended the restrictions stay in place.
Edwards announced on Monday that Louisiana was not ready to move into the next phase of lifting business restrictions under the White House-approved guidelines because the state does not meet federal criteria. Those factors include decreasing reports of COVID-like illness, decreasing new case counts, decreases in the percentage of tests administered that come back positive, and decreasing hospitalizations.
But mitigating the public health risk has come at a severe economic cost, including business closures, high unemployment and reduced tax revenue to pay for public services, and the pain has continued even as restrictions have been loosened. More than 20,000 state residents filed new unemployment claims during the week that ended June 20, according to the federal government.
The number of Louisiana residents receiving unemployment checks decreased by 9,342 claims between the weeks ending June 13 and June 6. Advance claims for the week ending June 13 were 297,016 claims, compared to 306,358 claims the week ending June 6.
David Jacobs, Staff Reporter for the Center Square, is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business, and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.