As Businesses Wait, Governor to Announce Reopening Decision

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With his stay-at-home order set to expire at the end of the week, Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to announce Monday if he’ll lift restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus and if so, which ones — a decision watched closely by businesses and employees across the state.

The current statewide stay-at-home order expires May 15. The governor has said that he’s “hopeful” he will be able to announce Monday that Louisiana will move into the first phase of reopenings as envisioned under the White House guidelines on May 16.

On Friday, he detailed steps the state was taking to increase testing and the number of contact tracers — workers who contact people infected with the virus and track down people they have been in close contact with. Both are considered key to reopening.

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Louisiana and especially the New Orleans area have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and at one time the governor was worried the state would run out of ventilators and ICU-bed capacity in a matter of days.

At the same time, the state’s economy has been decimated by the business closures done to stop the disease’s spread. More than 310,000 people have already qualified for unemployment benefits, according to the state labor department. And state economists warn the economic damage from the virus and the oil price decline will exceed Hurricane Katrina’s financial hit.

The Democratic governor faces increasing pressure from Republican elected officials to start reopening more of the economy.

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The current stay-at-home order shutters bars, theaters, gyms, salons, tattoo parlors and more; bans inside seating at restaurants and table service; and limits public gatherings to under 10 people, including at churches.

For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.

In a slight step toward reopening, the governor allowed restaurants to start letting customers eat outside on May 1 but without tableside service. A key question Monday will be whether he allows restaurants to open at reduced capacity for indoor dining.

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Kristin Alfandre, whose family has owned Mason’s Grill in Baton Rouge for nearly 22 years, said she will be watching closely to see what the governor announces. She said her family decided early on not to lay anyone off; they’ve dipped into retirement savings and used the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program to retain staff.

They’ve continued doing takeout and delivery orders or more recently, outdoor dining, but business is still down. She said she’s glad the announcement will come Monday so they will have time to prepare. For example, they’ll still be doing lots of to go orders so will have to move the station where they’re conducting those transactions to the front of the restaurant.

“We’ll just have to logistically work out all those roadblocks,” she said.

In Shreveport, Jeremy Shows is the general manager for Frank’s Pizza Napoletana. He’ll also be watching closely on Monday. His wife has an autoimmune disease and to protect her, he’s been staying with his mother for nearly two months. He said he hasn’t hugged his son, who’s with his wife, since March 13.

He’s already diagrammed out how many tables can fit in the restaurant at 25% capacity — eight — and since they don’t have anywhere to store the unused tables, they’ll leave them in place but remove the chairs. The staff is already wearing masks — some donated by customers.

“We’re ready to be open and we’re ready to serve our guests, and we’re ready to get back to the normal ways of life,” he said. But at the same time, he’s concerned about the health of his staff and guests. “Let’s ease this open and get it open and just be careful. I think it’s going to make everybody a little bit more diligent.”


By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte

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