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Christiaan Mader

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

Housing instability in Acadiana surges, just as local coronavirus curve begins to flatten

The gist: Confirming warning signs from earlier in the pandemic, more and more people are falling off the financial cliff and out of housing, many for the first time. Calls for sheltering help have climbed over the last month, according to data from 211, and moratoria on evictions and utility disconnections will soon end. 

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Almost 1,000 people in the region have called 211 for housing assistance since April 22. There are a marginal number of duplications among those call entries, according to 211, but the figure nevertheless represents a staggering increase in demand over the course of the last few weeks. On May 11, 232-HELP referred 103 people for housing assistance, the largest one-day total ever for the market. Overall, the volume of calls for some kind of housing assistance has overtaken the share of calls to 211 each day. In Lafayette Parish, 874 people have asked for housing-related help since the end of March. Figures ballooned week-to-week. 

“These are people who were close to the edge anyway,” says Leigh Rachal, the executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessnes. In other words, this represents only the first wave of housing insecurity and doesn’t include Lafayette’s renters, many of whom will face resumed eviction actions in short order. Louisiana’s moratorium on evictions is set to end May 15, and protections for renters in federally backed or subsidized housing will end in July, assuming Congress doesn’t extend those provisions of the CARES Act. Lafayette City Court expects a high volume of eviction filings to come after its two months of closure ends, says Judge Doug Saloom, the court’s chief judge. The court has already received calls from landlords indicating an intention to file evictions.

“We’ve never been closed for two months, and we’ve never gone for two months when we were open without an eviction being filed,” Saloom says. 

Five thousand people are now far enough behind on their utility payments that LUS would normally schedule them for disconnection. Those people are not in immediate danger of losing their electricity and water,  however. LUS suspended disconnections and late fees for 60 days in mid-March and has committed to working on payment plans with customers to spread out the debts. Still, the figure is a sobering marker of a so-far obscured economic toll. While the pandemic’s curve flattens, many people are flat on their backs. 

“It’s not uncommon for us to see $800 utility bills,” says Kim Boudreaux, executive director of Catholic Charities of Acadiana. Catholic Charities runs the Share the Light program on LUS’s behalf; the program allocates money donated from LUS customers to families who need help paying the utility bills. The fund won’t be able to keep up with demand, she says, noting the monthly allocations reflect disbursements to the program that are months old. The money available now reflects pre-pandemic billings. 

Overall, housing advocates worry the worst is yet to come. Calls for housing assistance have supplanted calls for food, questions about the virus or federal business relief since the beginning of May. Catholic Charities’ Boudreaux says the organization normally receives about 20 referrals a week. (Catholic Charities is the largest shelter provider in the region.) Those calls have climbed to 60 a day. 

“It’s going to be a long road to recovery for a lot of people,” Boudreaux says.

Unemployment in Acadiana is around 19%. That’s above the projected national unemployment rate of 14.5% and well beyond the depths of the 2014 oil crash. Nonprofits have warned since the beginning that the pandemic would crest a wave of need at a time when resources to meet it are plummeting. Efforts to jumpstart the economy — either by reopening or by direct financial stimulus — are halting at best so far. An extended downturn, recession or even depression could be devastating as social safety net dollars available to nonprofits or governments shrink.

Take a (laundry) load off a Lafayette healthcare worker

Lafayette General Foundation is raising money to pay for laundry for hospital employees, giving a boost to a local startup

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Lafayette ‘won’t openly defy’ the governor as other parishes break with stay-home order

The gist: Conservative politicians and business groups are getting louder in their criticism of the governor’s stay-home order, as a partisan divide on social distancing is opening. At least three parishes will buck the governor altogether, challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reach and resolve. Working to find flexibility where he can, Lafayette’s Republican mayor-president isn’t going that far. 

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“I’m not going to openly defy a lawful order,” Josh Guillory said Thursday of the order, set to expire May 15. Guillory has led Lafayette to pry open a path to resuming commerce without flouting the governor altogether, and he’s been consistently warm to the governor’s efforts, often remarking that he sees where Edwards is coming from. Rhetorically, the Republican mayor is in step with his party, however, saying he trusts “the market” to incentivize safe decisions as the economy reopens. 

Both West and East Feliciana and LaSalle parishes will openly defy the stay-home order. The small mostly rural parishes will reopen restaurant dining rooms, nail salons and barber shops, among other changes, but with some precautions still in place. The defiance presses on a weakness in the executive order — it needs local law enforcement to back it up.

“I told him if he felt like he had to shut us down then he should come on up here and enforce it,” West Feliciana Parish President Kenny Havard, a Republican and former legislator who has aligned with Edwards in the past, told USA Today Network.

Some conservatives and business groups are pushing Edwards to loosen his grip from Baton Rouge. Republican legislators may vote to overturn the governor’s emergency declaration, upending the stay-home order altogether. That effort is joined by calls from industry leaders for a “free enterprise” approach to standing down social distancing. LABI chief Stephen Waguespack held Lafayette’s Safe Shop policy as a blueprint for moving forward without crushing business, apparently overlooking that the Lafayette policy conforms to the governor’s current restrictions.  

Guillory’s approach has won favorable attention. He will present the Safe Shop policy to fellow mayors in a call with the Louisiana Municipal Association, and some parishes have already copied the policy. Safe Shop makes use of an ambiguity in the governor’s order to allow nonessential businesses to open up with at most 25% occupancy, which in many cases would allow them to exceed the 10-person limit the governor re-emphasized in announcing his extension. That interpretation has been OK’d by the governor, even as it’s allowed for places with deadlier outbreaks, like in St. Landry Parish, to start reopening. Acadiana was among four regions the governor singled out for their lack of social distancing and continued struggle with the pandemic. 

“I don’t believe the best approach to anything is painting with a broad brush,” Guillory said Thursday, referencing a letter he and fellow Lafayette Parish mayors wrote Edwards asking for local flexibility. The mayor-president has made clear he’d prefer more autonomy but is willing to concede to the Democratic governor’s authority, even as conservative activists plan another rally in Baton Rouge on May 2 and local pressure is mounting from voters that make up no small part of his base. 

The governor formally extended his stay-home order Thursday. Should good trends hold, the governor said this week, he’ll begin a phased reopening of the economy. The first step would codify the 25% occupancy limit with continued safety precautions first implemented in Lafayette. 

Link: Lafayette restaurants brace for extended coronavirus closure, then 25% occupancy limit

The governor plans to begin phase one of a gradual reopening of the state’s economy on May 16, which will allow restaurants to offer dine-in services at a 25% occupancy rate. Restaurant owners had mixed feelings on Monday’s news.

Source: Lafayette restaurants brace for extended coronavirus closure, then 25% occupancy limit | Coronavirus | theadvocate.com

Reader Survey: How safe do you feel? Not that safe

The gist: The talk has clearly shifted to reopening. It was always a question of when, not if, but when is getting closer. We asked our readers how safe they felt, and 270 weighed in.

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Would you go to a restaurant? Get a haircut? Most of you said no. We picked that benchmark for a couple of reasons, most notably because this is a culture that loves to eat out, and people have been boude-ing hard about not getting haircuts. 

“I’d feel safer if everyone took this seriously in the meantime, but not holding my breath.” That’s how one respondent put it. Overall, folks still seem pretty worried.The sentiment matches up with some other survey results. (1 = Not worried; 5 = Very worried)

Lafayette may reopen, but that doesn’t mean folks are getting out there. Again, most respondents indicated they weren’t quite ready to start acting normal as things start to open up. (1 = Not at all; 5 = Resume regular activity)

So what do we make of this? For a lot of people, feeling safe will come from more testing and a vaccine. Testing still lags way behind demand locally and nationally, and a vaccine won’t be ready until 2021, even if researchers throw caution to the wind. To the extent this sample is at all representative, efforts to reopen, evenly cautiously, are moving ahead of what many people are comfortable with. That raises questions about how people will actually behave as commerce comes online again. Will the community follow? 

UL economist Gary Wagner says the survey jibes with national polls and other surveys he’s seen. “I also think the results are a good sign that people recognize the added risks and plan to voluntarily take extra precautions,” he tells me. Indeed, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found broad support for keeping restrictive stay home orders going, even among people most affected financially.

‘It’s miraculous’ — no known coronavirus cases in Acadiana’s homeless shelters

Housing advocates say it’s a testament to the swift action taken to stand up emergency housing, isolate people at risk, rearrange facilities to allow for social distancing and communicate the threat to the people they work with.

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Link: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards likely to lift stay-at-home order May 1

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he will likely lift some restrictions currently mandated by his stay-at-home order when it expires April 30, but warned life still won’t be as it was before the coronavirus crisis.

“I don’t bet very often, but if you made me bet $1 I would bet on May 1 we’d be under a different order than we’re under now,” Edwards said. “But that really does depend on what happens over the next week or so because we have to make sure we have those 14 days where our trajectory is where we want it as it relates to cases and as it relates to hospital capacity and then an overall downward trajectory of (symptoms).

Source: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards likely to lift stay-at-home order May 1

African Americans make up a disproportionate share of Acadiana’s coronavirus deaths

The gist: While not matching the severe racial disparity seen at the state level, Acadiana’s black community is suffering a disproportionately high number of coronavirus fatalities. African Americans account for 39% of coronavirus deaths in the state’s seven-parish health region but only 27% of the population.

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Seventy-six people have died in the Acadiana region as of Tuesday 43 were white, 30 were black, three are categorized “unknown.” That breakdown tracks a trend of disparity seen nationwide. Across the country, public health officials are finding that coronavirus is wreaking havoc on black communities, who tend to have high rates of chronic disease and relatively limited access to healthcare. 

Acadiana’s disparity is smaller than the state’s. To date, roughly 56% of Louisiana’s 1,405 deaths are African American, a rate 1.75 times the black community’s share of the state population. Deaths among African Americans in Acadiana are 1.4 times the population share. 

We don’t yet know how this breaks down, parish-by-parish. The Louisiana Department of Health has released parish-level demographic data only for parishes that have reported 25 deaths or more. In Region 4, the LDH region that maps onto Acadiana, St. Landry Parish is the only one that meets that threshold, with 26 deaths reported. Of those, 20 were white and four were black, inverting the disparity in a parish with the highest fatality rate, 19%, among its confirmed cases. (By contrast, Lafayette Parish’s case fatality rate is approximately 4%.) St. Landry has the largest black community in the region as a percent of its parish population — 41%.

*Editor’s Note: After this story was first published, LDH confirmed that 25 of the 28 deaths reported in St. Landry Parish as of April 22 were nursing home residents.

Lafayette is in the early stages of launching a taskforce to examine health disparities. Announced earlier this week, the taskforce will be headed up by Carlos Harvin, LCG’s chief of minority affairs.

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

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.

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“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