Hearings demonstrate Louisiana's political divide over virus
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — House Republican lawmakers Wednesday outlined their grievances about Louisiana’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, saying Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ regulations are too strict even as public health experts warned of another expected coronavirus spike in flu season.
Legislators across two hearings complained about crowd limits on football games, mask requirements for cheerleaders and dance teams, restrictions on churches, closures of bars, constraints on nursing home visitation and different treatment of bars, restaurants and casinos.
“People are telling me they feel like their rights are being violated, that we are overreaching government,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican.
The criticism came in a special session that GOP lawmakers convened in part to consider rolling back some of Edwards’ rules and curbing the Louisiana governor’s sole authority to issue executive orders during disasters.
Lawmakers have complained that they have been sidelined in the decision-making — and say Edwards’ continued limits on businesses and activities go too far nearly seven months into the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
No votes were taken in Wednesday’s House committee hearings. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee planned to vote Thursday. It’s unclear what approach to limiting the governor’s authority was gaining the most support.
The Senate, meanwhile, voted 36-0 Wednesday for a measure by Republican Senate President Page Cortez that would require a governor to give legislative leaders advance notice and explanation when extending an emergency order beyond 30 days. The proposal is expected to run into opposition from House Republicans because it doesn’t give lawmakers new avenues to revoke or stall the emergency orders.
In the earlier House committee hearings, public health officials and infectious disease specialists cautioned lawmakers to move slowly in lifting restrictions. They said the statewide mask mandate, distancing requirements and other restrictions have helped combat the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This virus is waiting. It is waiting for us to say, ‘We don’t need to worry,’” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health officer.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, cautioned that flu season “will be the real test of our resiliency.”
More than 5,300 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, according to the health department.
Rep. Ray Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, said months into the pandemic, most people understand the risks of COVID-19 and should be able to make decisions about what exposure they are willing to take.
“I’m just concerned that we’re going a little overboard, particularly with sporting events,” Garofalo said.
Rep. Michael Echols, a Monroe Republican, said with more information available about the severity of the coronavirus, rules should be loosened: “Do we stop selling cigarettes because 7,200 people die a year?”
Edwards administration officials note the governor has loosened his restrictions several times, most recently in mid-September. They say the rules are less restrictive than many other states with lower rates of virus infections, and they point out that the White House coronavirus task force and Trump administration officials have repeatedly applauded Edwards’ handling of the outbreak.
Democratic lawmakers defended Edwards’ approach as guided by safety and science. They questioned giving legislators more ability to change or reject emergency orders.
“I’m concerned when you get too many people in a crisis-type situation like this trying to make decisions,” said House Democratic leader Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport.
Rep. Mike Johnson, a Pineville Republican, objected to suggestions that lawmakers should decide what’s best for people based on medical guidance — rather than on what people say they want.
“We’re not a nanny state ... The people should have a right to make decisions,” he said. “We’re not supposed to listen to the people who elect us and who call us?”
Bossier City Republican Rep. Raymond Crews said Louisiana should consider allowing wider spread of the coronavirus to reach “herd immunity.” He said people most at risk could remain isolated while others could return to a less restricted life.
Guidry said 60% to 70% of state residents would have to contract the virus to reach herd immunity, with only about 10% of people estimated to have been infected so far. Dr. Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer, said trying to reach herd immunity would cause thousands more deaths and overwhelm health care facilities.
“It would be disastrous,” Kanter said.