BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that he'll keep Louisiana's mask mandate and business restrictions in place for at least two more weeks, as the number of coronavirus patients at hospitals surges in all regions of the state.
The Democratic governor's current regulations were set to expire Friday but will extend until at least Aug. 7. The rules limit restaurants to 50% capacity for in-person dining, restrict bars to takeout and delivery only and place occupancy limits on gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Face coverings are required for anyone age 8 and older, with medical exceptions. Indoor gatherings above 50 people are banned.
"We still have a lot of COVID-19 in Louisiana, more than we want, and it's widespread all across our state," Edwards said. He added: "There is no doubt we have a long way to go and the situation is very serious, especially as it relates to hospitalizations."
More than 1,500 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized Tuesday. Alex Billioux, the governor's top public health adviser, said hospital capacities are becoming more strained, with some hospitals having to send patients to other facilities because they don't have the space to treat them.
"We've now clearly turned a corner in the wrong direction," Billioux said.
Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the governor lacked "a clearly articulated and creative pathway to a safe, reopened society, school system and economy."
"Businesses and families all across the state are suffering from the economic impact of this pandemic, and every day we don't reopen, more and more of those people and companies inch closer to insolvency," Waguespack said in a statement.
Edwards' move comes as school systems decide whether to have students return in August for in-person classes. New Orleans school Superintendent Henderson Lewis announced Tuesday the city's public schools will have online-only instruction when they open next month and won't resume onsite classroom instruction until some time after Labor Day.
The governor's extension of restrictions is certain to stoke continuing debate about conservative House Republicans' push to revoke Edwards' public health emergency declaration, an effort that Louisiana hospital leaders are warning will hamper their ability to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
The Louisiana Hospital Association is joining GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder in trying to discourage Republican lawmakers from signing a petition removing Louisiana's state of emergency and nullifying the Democratic governor's orders restricting activity to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The petition requires support from a majority of the House or Senate.
Supporters say Edwards has overstepped his authority by issuing a statewide mask mandate and is crippling the economy with his business restrictions. The hospital association and other opponents of the petition effort describe damaging consequences if Louisiana becomes the only state in the nation without an emergency declaration amid a pandemic that added another 36 people to the state's death toll Tuesday.
Nearly 3,500 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the latest data released Tuesday by the health department. The state, which once appeared to successfully reduce the virus' spread, has returned to one of the nation's highest per capita infection rates.
"The ability of hospitals to continue to provide critical healthcare services in communities across this state will be significantly limited if this petition receives the support of a majority of the House of Representatives," the association wrote to hospital officials across the state.
The emergency declaration allowed the waiver of certain regulations, giving hospitals and other health facilities more flexibility to easily bring in nurses and doctors from other states, expand telemedicine services and quickly increase bed capacity, the hospital organization said.
Removing Edwards' emergency orders would strip that flexibility and cost Louisiana some federal resources, the hospital association said.
Shreveport Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a lawyer who is spearheading the petition effort, said opponents are overstating the impact of the emergency declaration revocation and are "fear-mongering." Seabaugh's asked GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry for a legal opinion about the petition's implications, and he's argued the need to upend the restrictions enacted by Edwards.
"This is having a tremendously devastating effect on the economy," Seabaugh said. "At some point, you have to balance it."
It's unclear how close petition backers are to the 53 House signatures required for passage because the document has not been released publicly.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.