BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana business owners are impatient to open back up after more than a month shut down because of COVID-19, and could safely do so, trade group officials say.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has extended Louisiana’s stay-at-home order through May 15, with a few small changes. Parts of the state haven’t shown enough progress in fighting the coronavirus outbreak to do more, he said Monday.
“Returning businesses safely to operation remains an urgent priority. Under the extension of the Stay at Home order, many businesses are able to, and should, safely and smartly return to commerce,” Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp said in an emailed statement.
Edwards said that if Louisiana’s infection rate keeps falling, he expects to begin loosening the reins on May 16, letting churches and more retailers open at one-quarter of their legal occupancy rates. Some restaurant dine-in services also would be allowed at 25% of their legal maximum.
“Small business owners are going to look at that and say, ’It’s not worth my time or cost to get to that level to reopen.′ So they’ll stay closed or with curbside service” said Dawn Starns, Louisiana director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Until mid-May, however, Edwards’ March 23 order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery and closing casinos, gyms, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and salons will largely remain in place.
Businesses allowed to stay open during the virus outbreak have shown they can take steps to protect the public, and more should be allowed to do so now, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack said in an emailed statement.
Starns said, “We’re real concerned about what this is going to do to the economy.” She added: “This is really difficult for small business owners. Many are in areas that are not greatly impacted.”
Edwards said he consulted infectious disease specialists and other public health experts, as Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation for confirmed virus cases per capita. The Democratic governor said they used the White House guidelines for phased reopening, and Louisiana doesn’t yet meet the first phase.
A few modest changes begin Friday. People who buy meals can eat at restaurants’ outdoor tables, without service. Mall stores will be allowed to do curbside retail. And all people who interact with the public at work will have to wear masks.
Although the rate of confirmed virus infections has slowed statewide, Edwards noted that cases have grown over the past two weeks in northeast Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area and Acadiana.
Edwards had cautioned that he would use a “very gradual effort” to loosen restrictions enacted to stem the virus outbreak. His first small step began Monday, allowing “time-sensitive” elective medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, biopsies and dental procedures.
Louisiana became one of the U.S. hot spots for virus outbreaks in March, but has seen encouraging signs as rates of new infections and hospitalizations slowed statewide.
Louisiana’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 1,697 on Monday, and more than 27,000 cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus have been confirmed, according to the state health department. More than 17,000 people are presumed recovered, the department said.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. But for others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Edwards has so far rejected calls from some Republican officials to allow a parish-by-parish approach to reopening. And he has been cool to the idea of a regional approach, although he has said local officials can enact stronger rules than the state’s. In New Orleans, where more than 400 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s emergency order, which shuts down nonessential businesses and bans public gatherings, doesn’t expire until May 16.