Guillory leaves fighting Covid up to undermanned medical community and state authorities

Mayor-President Josh Guillory addresses reporters at a coronavirus briefing in April. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: Early signs of another surge are spurring warnings from health officials and the governor, who have renewed calls for Louisiana to take the pandemic seriously. But in Lafayette, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has stood down mitigation efforts, leaving undermanned state and health personnel to deal with the problem without local help. 

LCG backed off local enforcement of the state’s Phase 3 restrictions. Earlier in the pandemic, Guillory largely cooperated with the governor’s efforts, often remarking he found them in good faith. In April, he said he wouldn’t “openly defy” lawful restrictions. Several months later, cases have begun to tick up again, mirroring trends nationwide. Taking the appearance of a hands-off approach, Guillory has not directly addressed what, if any, role his administration will play in reining in violations of the governor’s order going forward. For the past couple of weeks, many bars and nightclubs have been openly flouting the governor’s orders, advertising live music on social media and staying open past the 11 p.m. closure spelled out in the Phase 3 guidelines. Images of unmasked patrons packed into clubs throughout the parish are being widely circulated. The impact of those gatherings is likely to show up in the increased case counts, which thus far are mainly linked to private social gatherings, according to Dr. Tina Stefanski, the region’s top public health official. 

Guillory instead has chastised the local medical community over its previous preparation. In remarks during a regional coronavirus meeting with officials from other parishes, he offered to make parish rec centers available as overflow capacity in the event that hospitalizations once again balloon, as they did in Acadiana over the summer, peaking at 304. Lafayette hospitals bear the brunt of that demand.

“We need some really, really strong assurances from the medical community that you guys have changed your behaviors and have done something to help mitigate this, because we can’t shut our economy down,” Guillory said, according to The Advertiser. “We can’t let what happened six, seven months ago be the norm for long-term sustainability.”

It’s not clear how Stefanski reacted to the mayor’s broadside, but she was unequivocal about the culprit. She blamed the increase on risky behavior and fatigue over covid mitigation measures, The Daily Advertiser noted. She reinforced the need for everyone to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the state’s mask mandate (which the CDC now says also protect wearers) and good hand hygiene, saying Acadiana is facing a “pivotal, pivotal” moment. New cases in the region are growing quickly, at a pace that mirrors the early signals of the second surge this summer. 

Manpower is a big concern for local hospitals. Stefanski clarified the predicament to Guillory (who often appears in public without a mask), explaining how hospitals had worked to increase capacity, but said that staffing was then, and will continue to be, a major hurdle. 

“The problem is you can’t produce more people. So the issue we saw this summer is that those nurses that were working the floors directly with the patients are also exposed in the community, and then that starts knocking out your workforce so you don’t have the people to work,” she said. 

State authorities have relied on local cooperation for months. And now state officials are pledging to step in where Guillory has stepped back. Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, did not respond to a request for comment about whether LCG will assist state officials with enforcement. In his press conference today, the governor called for buy-in from elected officials, addressing Guillory specifically after a reporter’s question. 

State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux

“Whether it’s the mayor-president of Lafayette or anybody else, I’m encouraging them to help. It really is critically important because we don’t want to go backwards on the restrictions,” the governor said.

“We either need to lead or get out of the way; this virus does not play politics,” state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux tells The Current, explaining that he has been having “an ongoing dialogue” with State Fire Marshal Butch Browning this week to address the pitfalls and will personally see to it that the restrictions are enforced in his district, which includes parts of Lafayette, St. Landry and St. Martin parishes. Boudreaux, who Guillory ousted as Lafayette’s parks director, is hopeful Lafayette’s nightlife this weekend will look markedly different than last. “When we see ourselves getting back to [these case counts],” he notes, “we have failed at every level.”

Again, manpower is the big issue, and always has been. The reason the state asked for local assistance in the first place was because it doesn’t have the resources to police the entire state, but Boudreaux insists Browning is working out a plan if he can’t get local support. “They’re going to have to make some adjustments, more overtime or a whole different work schedule,” the senator says. 

“The ball’s rolling now,” Boudreaux says. 

Bar activity in Lafayette remains in full force. Despite that bars continue to advertise big indoor events tonight and through the weekend, the state fire marshal insists enforcement is ongoing. In a press release this morning titled “COVID-19 Compliance Enforcement Continues,” the office sought to reaffirm that both the fire marshal and Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control “will continue conducting compliance enforcement of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Phase 3 COVID-19 order that remains in place.” Declining to say specifically whether there would be boots on the ground in Lafayette, fire marshal spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue said “enforcement will continue this weekend.”

Confusion has run rampant over the governor’s order and mask mandate. Boudreaux has tried in recent weeks to clarify that the governor’s Phase 3 orders were still in effect, despite an attempt by House Republicans to revoke the governor’s coronavirus restrictions in the recent special session. The messaging, however, failed amid a toxic mix of social media misinformation — much of it coming from Republican legislators (like this one from state Rep. Blake Miguez claiming the state’s public health emergency had been terminated) and Attorney General Jeff Landry, who took up the cause in court yesterday and again got shot down.

“I think the rhetoric has to change,” Boudreaux says. “The rhetoric of shutting down businesses has to stop. That hasn’t been the intent from Day 1.” 

Boudreaux says while the governor’s order holds the state fire marshal, the LDH and ATC responsible, it also authorizes local government officials to have enforcement authority if they want to participate. “Either [LCG is] going to be part of it or it’s not,” the senator says. “You can’t sit on the fence.”