For the first time in more than three months, Louisiana is moving forward in its reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Louisiana will enter Phase Three of reopening when the current order expires, allowing businesses, places or worship, and social gatherings to operate at less restrictive guidelines, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday.
The new order will be in effect for 28 days through March 31. Edwards said he has already signed the proclamation.
“We know we still have a lot of work to do before we get out of this pandemic… but we’re going to be moving to Phase Three,” Edwards said.
Louisiana has been under a modified Phase Two order since Thanksgiving week, just as the state was entering its third COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began last March. Edwards has since extended the order three times, first in December, again in January, and most recently in February.
With the heightened restrictions in place, new cases, percent positivity, and hospitalizations across the state have been trending to their lowest levels in months.
Additionally, the state continues to progress in its vaccination effort, with more than 1 million doses administered since mid-December. So far, more than 368,000 people have been fully vaccinated, and that number is expected to rise quickly with the recent federal approval of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses.
Edwards hinted at the possibility of loosening restrictions last week but stopped short of a guarantee, saying he needed to go over the gating criteria with health officials.
On Tuesday, it became official: Louisiana is moving forward.
“We’re currently moving in the right direction and have been for several weeks now,” Edwards said. “Certainly, we’re all gratified by that.”
Under the new order, the majority of businesses, including restaurants and salons, can move to 75 percent capacity. However, gyms and fitness centers will remain at 50 percent, with Edwards citing recent federal research “that raises concerns about spread in these settings.”
Bars in all parishes will be able to offer indoor service at 25 percent capacity or 50 percent if they’re in a parish with a positivity rate of 5 percent or less over two weeks. Bars have been effectively shut down for months, with health officials deeming them major spreaders of the virus.
At bars, alcohol sales must end at 11 p.m., and no one under 21 will be allowed inside. Additionally, patrons must be masked at all times except when eating or drinking and must be seated at tables that are properly spaced out.
Unlike the previous Phase Three order, there will be no “opt in” for bars.
Indoor gatherings and event centers will be limited to 50 percent capacity or 250 people under Phase Three, while outdoor events will be limited to 50 percent capacity of the event space.
There will be no size limitations on religious services, and indoor live music will be allowed under additional guidance provided by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The statewide mask mandate will remain in place, Edwards said.
The governor and Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state health officer, said the state has improved much since its third surge over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The surge reached its worst point on Jan. 8, which Edwards said was “the worst point in any surge thus far in Louisiana.”
Around that time, statewide percent positivity was approaching 15 percent, while COVID-19 hospitalizations soared above 2,000.
Since then, the numbers have steadily improved, with the most recent reports showing percent positivity (5 percent) and COVID-19 hospitalizations (629) being around one-third of what they were in early January.
“We are doing better, and that doesn’t just happen,” Edwards said. “It happens because people make a concerted effort to change their behavior and not do the things that cause the surge to begin with.”
However, both warned people against “letting your guard down,” especially as more transmissible variants continue to circulate through the state. Approximately 18 cases of the U.K. variant have been confirmed in Louisiana, Kanter said, with another 58 pending CDC confirmation.
“I want to be clear for folks out there: Do not equate the relaxed measures with there being zero risks,” Kanter said. “We’re not out of the woods by any means.”