Lafayette says ‘shop safe’ but stay home — coronavirus is still a threat

Parish leaders gather to announce Lafayette's Safe Shop initiative

The gist: New clarity to state guidelines that had shuttered hundreds of Lafayette businesses for weeks has already sprung open area shops, in effect beginning the first local thaw on commerce. But officials remain stark in their warnings to heed state orders to stay home and stay safe, sending a mixed message about the state of urgency.

“We’re still seeing very sick individuals. We’re seeing hospitals past their normal capacity,” said Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state public health director for the Acadiana region, in an interview with The Current. “It’s really important that we realize we should follow the stay-at-home order and stay home.” 

One more death, bringing the total 17, and nine new confirmed cases were reported in Lafayette Parish by the health department on Friday. Current regional models released by the Louisiana Department of Health show a steady increase in new infections over the next few months, even if shelter-in-place orders remain in effect. 

The new Shop Safe policy, announced by Mayor-President Josh Guillory Thursday, clarifies state guidelines that have been in place for weeks but sends a somewhat mixed message. On the one hand, local officials say Shop Safe sends a clearer signal to businesses confused about their status over the last month. Issued March 22, with subsequent clarifications, the governor’s stay-home order defines “essential” businesses, prohibits others from operating but leaves ample gray area, which Shop Safe addresses. Guillory himself urged citizens to stay home except when necessary, reiterating the threat posed by coronavirus. 

On the other hand, the updated guidance is clearly intended to blunt the economic impact of the virus by clearing a more obvious path for businesses to operate. In that sense, the policy has the net effect of encouraging commerce despite the continued presence of a virulent disease. It’s a risk-benefit calculation, administration officials say. 

“We need to be able to have some benefit. We’ve got to be able to open up some of these businesses to get the economy rolling again and do so safely,” Dr. Doug Clement, the first-ever parish medical director (an unpaid advisory position in the mayor-president’s office), said at Thursday’s briefing. Clement echoed the mayor-president’s sentiment that Shop Safe represents a manageable risk. “We need to start bringing our lives back online.” 

To what extent Shop Safe will yield more commerce is unclear. “I believe this sets the guidance that business knows it needs to live up to,” says LEDA President Gregg Gothreaux. “A lot of people will open up now, if they weren’t certain they were allowed to.”

Gothreaux’s right about businesses re-opening. But will customers show up? Responses on social media have been mixed, with many deeply concerned the policy might spread the infection and others thrilled to see commerce back in action. There was ample evidence Friday morning that some small retailers had been awaiting clearance to re-open. For example, both the Bertrand Drive and Kaliste Saloom locations of the four-decades-old Bevo’s, a women’s clothing and accessories store, reopened today, as did gift shop Caroline & Company and women’s clothing store Herringstone’s.

LDH weighed in only generally on the policy, which is in some ways more restrictive than what the governor’s order requires of businesses in the “grey area” category, with one exception: The governor’s order had previously been interpreted to cap gatherings at 10 people while Shop Safe imposes a 25% cap limit based on fire code occupancy. Larger facilities, by that measure, could host many more than 10 people at a time. Local officials insist this isn’t a change to the policy itself, despite the effect. 

On Thursday, Guillory responded to questions about LDH’s approval of the Shop Safe policy saying the local guidelines fit the letter and spirit of the state’s stay-home order, but he did not address whether and to what extent the state health department had a hand in crafting the policy itself. 

“I spoke with the mayor-president generally about policy and reiterated that we were under a stay-at-home order,” Stefanksi says of her role, as a regional official with LDH. She defers questions of policy to the governor’s order. In an email forwarded to the press Friday morning, a special counsel to Gov. John Bel Edwards affirmed that LCG’s legal interpretation of the stay-home order is consistent with the March stay-home directive. 

It’s been a confusing message to untangle: How do you “stay at home” and stay open? If the legal interpretation announced Thursday is consistent with the stay-home order, why for weeks was law enforcement shutting down businesses like those that re-opened today?

“We could have done this before. Lesson learned,” Chief Communications Officer Jamie Angelle said, acknowledging that per the “ad hoc” application of the governor’s order some businesses that may have otherwise been open for the last month had been ordered to close with light-touch enforcement. Angelle chalked the belated clarity up to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the blunt and forceful reaction from state government. “We have been trying to understand many new things,” Angelle said. 

The governor may yet extend his order beyond April 30. Edwards told reporters Friday that Louisiana is not yet at Phase 1 of the federal reopening guidelines released this week. New Orleans, the area hardest hit in the state, opted to keep local stay-home policies in place until May 16. Across the board, the LDH models released this week show dramatic spikes in new infections by early May if the stay-home order is relaxed or lifted

Lafayette, in a sense, is charting a legal path for other cities. With the governor’s approval, the interpretation could be applied elsewhere. Federal guidelines by and large leave the pace of reopening to state governments but recommend a phased approach. Still, Stefanski and other public officials are urging caution, displaying obvious concern that the effect of the last month of isolation could be undone in a bid to put Louisiana back to work. 

“A great concern of mine is if people don’t follow [the governor’s] directives, we’ll see a further spread,” she says. 

Additional reporting by Leslie Turk