Lawmakers urge Gov. Edwards to loosen occupancy restriction

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — A growing number of Louisiana lawmakers want their governor to loosen an executive order limiting nonessential businesses to a quarter of their typical occupancy.

Gov. John Bel Edwards filed the order last week, in an effort to reopen businesses closed for weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The 25 percent cap allows workers and customers to stay six feet apart, which experts say is enough space to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus.

State House Republicans argue the governor’s order undermines the ability of businesses to enforce social distancing without government action. They have passed an amendment asking the governor to decentralize his coronavirus response — with a veteran legislator calling the 25 percent limit “arbitrary.”

“Twenty-five percent occupancy is tying two hands behind the backs of these restaurants and telling them, ‘Get into the boxing ring,’” state Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) said. “No one knows but God how this will end up, but these people need to get back to business.”

The amendment did not come without backlash from House Democrats, including one from Edwards’ hometown.

“Health prevails over business, especially in these times,” state Rep. Robby Carter (D-Amite) said. “I’ve got to put the safety of my family and my constituents above profits shown by some businesses.”

Edwards maintains he will not consider further reopening measures until early June, at the earliest. He adds he is willing to wait longer if Louisiana’s COVID-19 numbers worsen or do not improve.

The Louisiana Department of Health has confirmed more than 35,000 coronavirus cases, as of Tuesday. Of them, nearly 2,500 patients have died, and more than 26,000 are presumed recovered.

Harris’ amendment is part of a larger House resolution, asking the governor’s office to update the Legislature on efforts to “track the incidence and spread of COVID-19.”

(House members further amended the resolution to stress that it does not support contact tracing, which involves telling people they have made contact with an infected person. Critics claim the practice risks violating privacy.)

The resolution, as amended, heads to the Senate for consideration.

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