SADOW: Smart Reopen Can Redeem Botched Louisiana Lockdown

Having botched Louisiana’s response on the upswing of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has a chance at partial redemption on its downhill side.

Today, Edwards is expected to outline his next response to the dwindling crisis. As of yesterday, the seven-day rolling average of new cases registered only a two percent increase and deaths rose just four percent. Further, the outbreak largely remains confined to St. Tammany, Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. James Parishes, which have only 29 percent of the state’s population but 61 percent of the cases and deaths.

Compared to his neighbors, Edwards is well behind the curve. A week ago, the governors – all Republicans – of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee announced measures continuing through this week of substantially reopening their economies, although local officials retain the authority to impose more restrictions. Independently, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done the same. Nothing along these lines has come from Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, because Arkansas, along with a handful of other states, never imposed measures to shut down large swaths of the economic sector.

Of course, Louisiana’s tardiness to the party stems from it suffering much more from the pandemic, in part because of poor decisions made by Edwards. By the end of Carnival, he should have grasped that it would serve as an accelerant to virus transmission and prepared immediately for that, following the approach taken in Washington where it began ramping up testing capacity even before confirmation of its first case and using that to implement a trace and treat strategy, which resulted in quarantining hundreds before any confirmations. Additionally, he could have utilized California’s approach of immediate maximal restrictions only in areas where cases popped up and isolation of hot spots.

Instead, Edwards undertook a once-size-fits-all gradual vise-tightening days after the first confirmed case that inhibited the acquisition of herd immunity and economic activity where little spreading of the infection was occurring while not doing enough to stop it in places that gave every indication that large-scale incubation already had occurred. Short of doing nothing, it was the worst possible strategy and unnecessarily prolonged the crisis.

Edwards botched the hot phase of the crisis, but he can compensate partially for that as it cools down. This requires nuance absent in his handling of it to date and rejection of the fear mongering which has typified his response so far.

Modelling White House suggestions (which Edwards repeatedly has said he bases his decisions upon) and those other states forging ahead, optimally Louisiana should proclaim statewide minimal restrictions on gatherings and continue isolation of vulnerable populations, but leave any additional prohibitions to local authorities (or take a regional approach like the only state hit harder than Louisiana, New York, is doing). This strategy largely follows that outlined by the leader of Louisiana Senate Republicans, Sharon Hewitt.

Any order needs a good baseline because not all local authorities have the power to issue emergency regulations. For example, while the government of Bossier City with its nearly 70,000 residents has the power to enact emergency measures, the other 57,000 or so residents of the parish (including other small cities) don’t live under governments that have that. So, a statewide order makes sense, along the lines of Proclamation JBE 2020-27 that limited gatherings to 250, among other things, along with select elements of JBE 2020-41 that address matters of social distancing, school closures, health care-related matters, and administrative matters, set to last another two weeks.

This way, much suspended business can resume, and for the remainder at least some semblance of this such as restaurants having patrons spaced out can proceed. But for areas such as Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, two of the worst-off counties in the country for incidence of both infections and mortalities, local officials can maintain more restrictions (which Orleans already has implemented in lengthening the life of its current emergency rules).

Interestingly, the chief executives of Washington and California whose initial responses to the crisis created much lower infection and death rates than in Louisiana now are fumbling the back end of crisis management by their reluctance to let go of state power over people’s lives. If Edwards didn’t previously emulate them when it could have helped, he surely doesn’t need to copy them now.

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