NEW ORLEANS — Gov. John Bel Edwards announced a statewide mask mandate and new restrictions for bars across Louisiana in a press conference Saturday, hours after the second coronavirus update in as many days showed more than 2,000 new cases.
The restrictions would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning.
Saturday's increase, 2,167 new COVID-19 cases, is the third-largest since the outbreak began in Louisiana on March 9. The second highest, which was Friday, is only topped by an early April update that included an unspecified number of backlogged cases.
"Yesterday we had our highest day ever of new cases," Edwards said. "It's become clear to me especially after the number we saw yesterday that our current restrictions are not enough."
His update, in a rare Saturday press conference announced on short notice, focused on an executive mandate that all people over 8 years old wear masks throughout the state, unless they have a serious medical condition that would prohibit them from wearing one.
The mask mandate encompasses the outdoors as well. Anybody within six feet of a non-immediate household member must wear a mask whether they are outdoors or inside.
Parishes will be able to opt-out of the mask mandate if they meet a low-case criteria of fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people over a 2-week period.
As of Saturday, Edwards said, only three parishes meet the requirement. Those are Grant, West Feliciana and Red River parishes.
"Whether they opt-out or not is going to be a decision for them, but it is still strongly encouraged that everybody who is able to....wear a mask," Edwards said.
The mask mandate will mirror those already in place in East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Orleans parishes.
Edwards pushed back against what he called a partisan divide over the idea of wearing a mask, saying that in Louisiana and across the country, he has seen behavior he can't understand.
"There has been a political dynamic that has emerged around the whole issue of masks," Edwards said. "That doesn't make any sense to me."
Masks are an effective barrier against COVID-19, but have become a cultural flashpoint among some people who say being forced to wear them while in public spaces infringes on the freedom to choose how to protect themselves, or those who simply don't like the uncomfortable feeling of a face covering.
Edwards sympathized with those people, but addressed them in no uncertain terms:
"We know that facemasks work. It's as simple as that," he said. "It is the necessary thing to do. It is the right thing to do under the circumstances. That is why we're going to do it. We are not going to let this virus win....I don't like it, but at the end of the day I know it's the right thing to do."
Bars closing, will operate as take-out only
Bars also have new restrictions on them. At any establishment with a liquor license in Louisiana, customers will be unable to drink on the premise. They will have to take their drinks to-go, through curbside pickup.
Bars have come under increased scrutiny recently by health experts for their role in spreading the virus.
Mark Schettler is the General Manager of Bar Tonique in the French Quarter. He, like so many bar owners, are disappointed to know the work they’ve done to keep customers and their staff safe was in vain.
"We're doing everything we can to keep the community safe, everything to keep our staff safe for what?” Schettler said. “For a bunch of people on Bourbon Street who don't care about the public's health?”
Scott Wood owns Courtyard Brewery. Wood and Schettler are concerned the Governor’s new restrictions could close the doors of their establishments – permanently.
"It’s just a lot of the unknown,” Wood said. “There's a lot of anxiety around that. Throughout this whole thing it's been stressful."
Tigerland bars in Baton Rouge have already been connected with at least one cluster of cases, in which more than 100 people were infected. At the Saturday press conference, Edwards said even more COVID-19 spread had been traced to bars: at least 36 outbreaks infecting 400 people.
"In Phase 0 and Phase 1, bars were closed," Edwards said. "So all of this has happened in Phase 2."
Indoor gatherings will also be limited to a max of 50 people, Edwards said.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell spoke out in support of the Governor's new restrictions, saying that they will make New Orleans and all of Louisiana safer.
“I thank Gov. Edwards for his leadership," Cantrell said. "None of this is easy, and no one wants to go backwards --- but public health and public safety must remain our top priority. Without a healthy population, there can be no economic recovery. We are all in this together.”
Cases will continue to rise
Wednesday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned that the state was “going in the wrong direction” after erasing all gains it had made against the virus in June. Edwards said that Louisiana is now seeing new case numbers rivaling peaks seen in early April.
However, unlike the previous peak which had an epicenter in the New Orleans metro area, Edwards said Louisiana is facing a “statewide epidemic” in which no single region is driving growth in cases or hospitalizations.
The governor was also set to make a decision later in July about whether the state would move on to Phase 3 of economic reopening after deferring the decision in June when daily case numbers began rising.
Saturday, the governor addressed the upcoming July 24 deadline, saying he was planning to stay in Phase 2, but would give an update on how Louisiana would move forward later in July.
Edwards said he was strongly against moving back to Phase 1 or shutting businesses down completely again. But much of the progress the state has made over the past several months has been rolled back with recent case hikes.
As of July 11, Louisiana is #3 in cases per capita in the nation, only behind New York and New Jersey. Midway through June, Louisiana dropped out of the top 10 briefly before bouncing back to the top of the rankings.
And because of the approximate two-week delay between behavior changes to when the data reflects them, Edwards said the numbers are likely going to get worse, with more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths.
"We have no reason to believe that the numbers we have been reporting over the last couple of days are going to get any better over the next several weeks," he said. "They will likely get worse."