BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he’s largely ending Louisiana’s nearly three-month-old indoor mask mandate since the state has emerged from its latest coronavirus spike and is seeing lower rates of COVID-19 infection.
But while the Democratic governor is lifting the mask requirement for grocery stores, restaurants, bars, retailers, colleges and other sites, he’s keeping a complicated set of face-covering rules in place for Louisiana’s K-12 schools.
School districts that maintain tight quarantine regulations for students who have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 won’t be required to have a mask mandate. But those districts that don’t require all exposed students to be sent home will have to keep students and staff masked up, under Edwards’ new regulations taking effect Wednesday.
The Edwards administration said stricter requirements should remain in place at schools because children have greater exposure risks, with students under 12 unable to yet get vaccinated against the coronavirus and sitting in crowded classrooms for hours.
The split decision for schools highlights Edwards’ displeasure with Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s loosening of quarantine guidance for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students.
Brumley is no longer suggesting schools send home asymptomatic students who have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, as is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, Brumley suggests parents could choose whether to send their children to school if they don’t have symptoms, arguing too many students have missed days of school because of quarantines.
Edwards and public health officials disagreed with Brumley’s decision. Many of Louisiana’s school systems have refused to change their quarantine rules despite the superintendent’s new guidance, saying they’ll stick with the advice of medical experts.
In those areas with the tougher quarantine requirements, school system leaders will be able to decide if they want to keep a mask mandate or end it.
Though Edwards decided to lift most of the face-covering mandate across Louisiana, masks will be required at airports, on planes, on public transportation and in medical facilities because of federal rules. Individual businesses also can enact their own mask requirements if they choose.
New Orleans also won’t necessarily follow the governor’s lead.
Beau Tidwell, a spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said the mayor and city health officer Jennifer Avegno want to look closely at the data before making any decisions about easing the city’s masking requirements. It was unclear when the city’s decision would be made.
In August, Edwards reinstated Louisiana’s now-expiring mask mandate for all public indoor locations as the state faced its fourth and worst surge of the coronavirus illness and held the unwanted position of having the highest per capita COVID-19 infection growth in the nation. At the time, hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients, describing stretchers filled with people waiting for beds and critical surgeries delayed because inundated facilities couldn’t keep up with health care needs.
Shortly after the mandate resumed, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 per day peaked at a state-high of more than 3,000 and then started to fall. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has dropped to 332, the lowest it’s been since early July and among the lowest number since the pandemic began, according to state health department data.
“We have made tremendous progress and I have no doubt that reinstating the mask mandate was key to this,” said Edwards.
Louisiana now has one of the nation’s lowest per capita rates of new COVID-19 infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of new infections and the percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive also have dropped sizably over the last two months, with the test positivity falling below 3% statewide.
Still, most of Louisiana’s parishes are still considered at high risk for COVID-19 exposure, under CDC definitions.