NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A couple Louisiana parishes are bucking the governor's continued coronavirus order by letting churches and other establishments open their doors to more people Friday.
LaSalle Parish in central Louisiana and East Feliciana Parish near Baton Rouge both said churches and businesses may open Friday at 25% of occupancy limits — a change Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he hopes to make in mid-May. East Feliciana Parish also is reopening libraries and some other establishments.
Local officials may set restrictions tougher than the state's but cannot be less restrictive, Edwards said at his daily news briefing Thursday.
"I assure you, the proclamation was based on sound science," he said.
Edwards said he has extended his COVID-19 stay-home order through May 15, rejecting Republican calls to consider parish-by-parish or regional reopening. He said indoor worship services remain limited to 10 people but properly distanced larger congregations can attend services outdoors or under a tent "with its sides up" for free air flow.
Officials in both LaSalle and West Feliciana Parishes told The Associated Press on Thursday that the state's infection numbers for their parishes are inflated by cases among prison inmates. East Feliciana Parish also issued a reopening order, WAFB-TV reported.
A group of LaSalle Parish business owners, elected officials and pastors decided a wider reopening is safe there because few residents have been diagnosed with the disease caused by the virus and hospitals aren't having any problems, Sheriff Scott Franklin said Thursday.
"Our hospitals are ghost towns now," rather than overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, Franklin said.
State figures show 23 people in the parish diagnosed with the disease, but the sheriff said about one-third are federal inmates. Nobody in LaSalle Parish has died from COVID-19.
"We only have three or four active cases in a parish of 15,000," Franklin said.
Just over 28,000 Louisiana residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 1,862 of them have died, the state health department reported Thursday.
For most people, the highly contagious virus causes no, mild or moderate symptoms but some suffer severe disease and even death.
West Feliciana Parish had also been preparing to reopen, but Parish President Kenny Havard on Thursday said he decided to follow the governor's order after speaking with Edwards, The Advocate reported. Under the parish's shelved plan, stores and restaurants would have operated at 25% occupancy, the government said on its webpage.
The East Feliciana reopening guidelines apparently are nearly as broad as the neighboring parish's, but with four paragraphs emphasizing personal precautions.
East Feliciana has had 122 cases including 14 deaths.
Havard said his parish's last COVID-19 case was March 24 and most of the 115 people reported by the state as infected are state prison inmates. Fifty-five inmates at Louisiana's maximum-security prison in Angola have come down with COVID-19, state Department of Corrections figures show. No inmate has died, but one of 31 infected Louisiana State Penitentiary workers has. State figures show two COVID-19 deaths in the parish.
In LaSalle Parish, businesses may operate Friday at 25% occupancy under guidelines emailed to The Associated Press by Franklin. Employees must be masked and can't let in customers with COVID-19 symptoms.
That parish's guidelines ask churches to begin or continue online services if possible. Those that open should consider holding only one service a week and should disinfect the church with "Lysol or similar spray" before and after services, mark 6-foot separations for pews or chairs and keep doors open, with hand sanitizer nearby, throughout services so nobody has to touch the knobs.
On the advice of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, LaSalle Parish restaurants decided not to participate, said Gerald Mitchell, owner of the Brisket House in Jena.
The governor said the health department and fire marshal's office will enforce his order and have power to revoke state permits. "We really hope it doesn't come to that," he said, stressing that parishes and businesses deemed out of compliance with his order will be given time to return to compliance.
Attorney General Jeff Landry asked the governor in a letter Thursday to give churches more flexibility to reopen with more than 10 people.
The Republican attorney general told Edwards that he expects many congregations won't keep following the stay-at-home order now that other states have started reopening and "unrest in the Legislature continues" about the two-week extension of the stay-at-home order.
The governor said President Donald Trump "didn't express any opposition" to extending Louisiana's order when Edwards visited the White House on Wednesday.
The Louisiana Legislature announced Thursday that it will resume its session Monday, with a number of safety restrictions and taking up only about one-third of the bills filed for consideration.
Among other changes, committee hearings will be staggered to reduce traffic in Capitol halls.