Edwards keeping Louisiana coronavirus restrictions in place

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he'll continue Louisiana's statewide mask mandate and the business restrictions he enacted to combat the coronavirus outbreak for at least three more weeks, despite lawsuits seeking to upend the orders.

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The rules were set to expire Friday, but the Democratic governor said he will extend them through Aug. 28 as the state continues to have one of the nation's highest per capita virus infection rates in the last two weeks. Edwards said the state has “made early fragile gains" in slowing the virus spread but couldn't risk lifting the restrictions yet.

“By no means are we out of the woods," said Dr. Alex Billioux, the governor’s chief public health adviser.

Billioux estimated Louisiana still has at least 50,000 active coronavirus cases where people can shed the virus to others. He said: “We are not in a position where we think we can start to peel away restrictions.”

The regulations limit restaurants to 50% capacity for in-person dining, restrict bars to takeout and delivery only and place occupancy limits on gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Face coverings are required for anyone age 8 and older, with medical exceptions. Indoor gatherings above 50 people are banned.

Edwards' decision to extend the Phase 2 rules comes as Louisiana's governor joined the leaders of Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia on Tuesday in announcing an interstate compact to buy 3 million rapid-use coronavirus tests.

“Rapid access to testing is crucial in our collective fight against COVID-19, which is why I am grateful to join these other governors in a collaborative effort to purchase testing supplies and help identify outbreaks more quickly, while improving the turnaround time for test results,” Edwards said.

The governor said the purchasing agreement, coordinated through the Rockefeller Foundation, is the nation’s first such testing compact. It’s aimed at demonstrating demand to private manufacturers for the rapid tests that deliver results in 15 to 20 minutes.

Each state will buy 500,000 tests through a deal being negotiated with two manufacturers, Becton Dickinson and Quidel, Edwards’ office said. The governor said it was too soon to say how much the tests will cost.

The rolling average number of new coronavirus cases daily in Louisiana has been falling over the past two weeks, but the state still is seeing more than 1,800 new cases confirmed per day during that time. New hospitalizations from coronavirus patients also are starting to decrease.

Edwards and Billioux said that the mask mandate and bar restriction in particular have helped shrink the number of new cases and that all the restrictions must be maintained to slow the spread of the virus.

“You can see that these things do work,” the governor said.

Critics say Edwards is infringing on personal freedom with the face covering requirement and crippling Louisiana’s economy with his business restrictions.

At least three pending lawsuits in state and federal court are seeking to have some of the rules thrown out as overstepping the governor’s authority.

Two federal lawsuits, in New Orleans and Lafayette, are specifically challenging Edwards’ prohibition on bars serving onsite drinks. A third lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge state district court and set for a Wednesday hearing goes further, challenging the mask mandate, the bar restrictions and the indoor gathering limit as unconstitutional.

Louisiana's health department says 3,937 state residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. The state has seen more than 124,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since early March, according to the health department, with more than 74,000 presumed recovered.

The numbers of actual infections are thought to be far higher because many people can be asymptomatic and never get tested.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and more than 30 other attorneys general called on federal health officials Tuesday to let other companies manufacture the antiviral drug remdesivir used to treat coronavirus patients, ending Gilead Science's exclusivity over the treatment medication. The effort, the attorneys general wrote in a letter, would help cut the drug's cost and widen access.

Meanwhile, Louisiana's agriculture department on Tuesday announced the state's first confirmed COVID-19 infection in an animal, a dog found to be positive through a nasal swab test. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said no evidence suggests that pets help to spread the virus, and he urged people not to abandon their pets because of worry.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.