UPDATED: St. Mary schools making plans to sell more tickets after COVID restriction eased

St. Mary football fans will be able to turn out for high school games in larger numbers after the relaxation of crowd size limits for outdoor sporting events.

But that wasn't the only news on the COVID-19 front this week.

Louisiana, which once had some of the hottest of COVID-19 hotspots in the world, now has the lowest rate of new COVID cases per capita and the lowest positive rate in the American South, Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference Thursday.

The news came even though Louisiana has moved into Phase 3 coronavirus restrictions in September, and many K-12 schools and colleges have reopened for on-campus learning.

Edwards said he relaxed the crowd-size limits for football games at the request of state Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder.

"I'm inclined to engage in reasonable conversation when I have the opportunity," Edwards said.

But "I can tell you we still have work to do and still have a ways to go," Edwards said.

Twenty-six parishes, including St. Mary, St. Martin and Assumption, where weekly average positivity rates for new COVID tests are no more than 5% may increase high school football stadium capacity from 25% to 50% at the parish's option. The 25% restriction may be imposed again if the positivity rate rises above 5%.

"High schools are already planning to sell more tickets for tonight’s games given the capacity level increase announced yesterday," Superintendent Teresa Bagwell said in an email.

The move comes as conservative lawmakers have tried to limit the governor's emergency powers to restrict commerce as a tool to slow the spread of COVID-19.

They point to a Louisiana economy that was slumping because of a prolonged slump in energy prices for more than five years before coronavirus emerged last spring .

Louisiana's unemployment rate topped 15% in April, when Edwards' stay-at-home order, the closure of nonessential businesses and school closures were in effect. The economic impact was blunted by federal aid, including at least $50 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans to St. Mary employers and and a $600 week federal boost in weekly unemployment benefits. Those benefits have expired, and partisan divisions have prevented new coronavirus aid from being passed by Congress.

New coronavirus infections were down by May, and Edwards ended the stay at home order and relaxed capacity limits on many businesses. But a second wave of infections followed Memorial Day, leading the governor to impose a mask mandate, close bars and limit crowd sizes, among other measures.

In an appearance at a St. Mary Chamber luncheon, Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, criticized what he called Louisiana's "shutdown culture" that eases and then imposes restrictions in response to fluctuations in COVID data.

Louisiana's unemployment rate was 8.2% in September. St. Mary's unemployment rate was at 9.2% in August.

Edwards defended his decisions at Thursday's press conference.

"I'm asking you to ask [lawmakers] which of my decisions is inconsistent with what I'm being told by the White House task force," Edwards said. "Which are inconsistent with the science and the data?"

Edwards said that like many lawmakers and business people, he's frustrated with the measures needed to fight COVID-19.

"But the feeling that we're tired of it doesn't mean it's going to go away," Edwards said.

On Thursday, 24 new COVID-19 cases were reported for St. Mary, St. Martin and Assumption parishes, according to the Louisiana Office of Public Health. No new fatalities were reported.

Ten new cases since Wednesday raise St. Mary's pandemic total to 2,011.

St. Martin has eight new cases for a total of 2,191.

Assumption's six new cases raise the total there to 794.

The death tolls remain at 84 for St. Mary, 63 for St. Martin and 24 for Assumption.

Statewide:

--775 new cases make the pandemic total 178,171.

--9 newly reported fatalities raise the toll to 5,593.

--10 fewer COVID-positive people are hospitalized for a total of 598.

--4 fewer people are on ventilators for a total of 64.

Edwards noted that while hospitalizations were down Thursday, they'd increased by 58 in the three previous days.

"That remains the most concerning trend I see in the data we're reporting," Edwards said, "and we're going to continue to monitor that closely."

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