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Gov. Edwards extends Phase 3 orders for another 4 weeks

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Even as his coronavirus restrictions are being challenged in court, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday that he’s extending Louisiana’s statewide mask mandate, business limitations and other rules he enacted to combat COVID-19 for another four weeks.

House Republicans are trying to throw out all the restrictions and fully reopen state activities, with no face covering requirement, no rules governing bars and restaurants and no crowd limits for sports games or other events despite the pandemic.

But the Democratic governor is arguing in court that the method the GOP lawmakers used to attack his emergency order is unconstitutional, and he is continuing to enforce the limits. The coronavirus restrictions were set to expire Friday, but Edwards said he’s renewing them through Dec. 4.

“We think we’ve got the balance of things about right,” Edwards said. He added: “The science is very, very clear, and our experience in Louisiana now is extremely clear. These measures work.”

A hearing in the ongoing litigation over the rules is scheduled for Nov. 12, after a judge refused to block Edwards from reissuing his public health emergency order.

The broad outline of Edwards’ current Phase 3 rules was enacted in September. The governor, however, has since tweaked portions of the guidelines to allow some bar reopenings and larger crowds at high school football games.

The restrictions being renewed allow restaurants, churches, gyms, shopping malls, salons and most other businesses to operate at 75% of their capacity. Tighter limits remain on bars, keeping them to takeout and delivery sales only, unless they operate in parishes where 5% or fewer of the coronavirus tests have come back positive in the last two weeks. In those parishes, bars can open for in-person, onsite drinking at 25% occupancy if local officials agree.

An 11 p.m. curfew remains on alcohol sales at restaurants, bars and casinos. Concert halls and indoor live music venues remain strictly regulated on physical distancing among patrons, if they open at all.

Most sports events, such as college football games, have crowd limits of 25%. But high school football games held in outside stadiums can boost their crowd sizes to 50% capacity if they’re in those parishes with low percentages of coronavirus tests returning positive.

More than half of Louisiana’s 64 parishes have reached the virus positivity rates allowed for bars to resume onsite drinking and for larger crowds at high school football games. But not all local leaders have approved the looser rules. New Orleans, for example, maintains tougher restrictions.

Louisiana isn’t seeing the latest spikes in COVID-19 happening across the country, but the state reports hundreds of new confirmed cases daily.

“The second that we lose vigilance we’re going to see ourselves, unfortunately, where a number of other states are right now,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the governor’s chief public health adviser.

Republican lawmakers say the statewide rules are too strict eight months after Louisiana saw its first outbreak of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

Louisiana has seen two coronavirus spikes, first in the New Orleans region in March and April, and statewide this summer. The percentage of positive tests and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients have declined since Louisiana’s latest high point in mid-July.

Trying to scrap Edwards’ restrictions, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and 64 other GOP House lawmakers invoked a never-before-used process in Louisiana law that allows a majority of legislators in either the House or Senate to sign a petition to nullify a governor’s emergency declaration. Edwards sued the lawmakers, asking a judge to declare that the governor’s emergency rules remain intact and enforceable and that the petition process is unconstitutional.

The governor credits his coronavirus restrictions — and residents’ willingness to adhere to them — with helping hold down a third spike in COVID-19 cases. He’s repeatedly noted his decision-making is in line with the recommendations of the White House ’s coronavirus task force.

At least 5,766 people in Louisiana have died from COVID-19, according to the state Health Department. Louisiana’s death toll is the nation’s fifth highest per capita. Four out of every five of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 involved people aged 60 or older.

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