BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s governor on Friday closed K-12 public schools across the state for roughly a month, postponed the presidential primary until June and banned gatherings of more than 250 people, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order delaying the April 4 election until June 20, making Louisiana the first state to push back its election because of the virus. Louisiana also postponed elections in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and in 2008 after hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
The Democratic governor ordered public schools shuttered until April 13 and barred all large public gatherings of more than 250 people until the same date, with no exemptions for church services. He also loosened deadlines for renewing driver’s licenses and conducting other state business, to cut down on face-to-face interactions at state buildings.
“The time for serious action is now,” Edwards said at a news conference with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. He added: “There is some period of time where we’re going to have a new normal.”
The limitations on public gatherings don’t apply to normal operations at airports, medical facilities, shopping centers, office buildings, manufacturing facilities or grocery stores. Edwards said public schools may offer distance learning for the state’s 700,000 students, but he temporarily suspended state provisions requiring students to receive a certain number of instructional minutes.
At the news conference with Edwards, Cantrell tried to combat rumors, telling the public, “We are not limiting the sale of alcohol. We are not shutting down private businesses or forcing them to close.”
Edwards’ order comes as governments across the world are dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The state’s first positive case was announced Monday. By Friday morning, the tally of positive test results had grown to 36, mainly in the New Orleans region, although one case was identified in northwest Louisiana, in Caddo Parish, state health officials said. The tests are awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover within weeks.
Edwards has urged people to remain calm, but to take precautions. The governor has declared a public health emergency in the state. State prisons have suspended visitation for 30 days, and hospitals and nursing homes are limiting visitor access to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to vulnerable populations.
As they were around the country, events in Louisiana were being canceled. The Crescent City Classic, a 10K road race which organizers say brings 20,000 people to downtown New Orleans, will go virtual because of the order against gatherings of more than 250 people, an emailed statement said. It said registered runners can submit their “tracked time” over a 6.2-mile course of their choosing or on a treadmill, with submissions due April 11, the race’s date.
The order also shut down some of the city’s biggest attractions: the National WWII Museum and the Audubon Zoo and other paid facilities run by the Audubon Nature Institute. The museum’s announcement said officials don’t know when it will reopen. The zoo, aquarium, insectarium, planetarium and interpretive center are closing at least through March 28, the Audubon Nature Institute said.
Every public four-year university in the state was moving its classes online, Edwards said. Legislative leaders, meanwhile, sent an email to lawmakers saying they intended to limit public access to the state Capitol building, and planned to have visitors’ temperatures taken at entrance points before allowing them inside.
Lawmakers, who are only one week into the Legislature’s three-month session, also have begun working on contingency plans for must-pass bills, such as the budget, in case they need to end the session early. Edwards encouraged lawmakers to suspend legal requirements involving how many House and Senate members must be on hand to take votes and pass bills.
The governor’s proclamation applied only to public schools, but many private schools appeared to be following the Edwards’ lead. Catholic schools in New Orleans and elsewhere closed their campuses as they tried to work out online lessons.
The Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Gregory M. Aymond also said that Catholics would not be obligated to attend Mass on Sundays for the next 30 days.
“I highly encourage those who are elderly, sick, experiencing symptoms of illness, or who are at high risk of illness to not attend Mass these weekends,” the archbishop said, adding that services at St. Louis Cathedral would continue to be broadcast on the internet and WLAE.
The governor also encouraged churches to hold numerous services in order to stay below the 250-person benchmark.
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