Eat-in restaurants return as Louisiana eases restrictions

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks to reporters at a briefing on the state’s efforts against the coronavirus pandemic in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, May 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Once a hot spot for coronavirus infections, Louisiana is officially easing up Friday on economically devastating business closures and public gathering restrictions that Gov. John Bel Edwards credits with slowing the spread of the virus.

With certain limitations — and excluding New Orleans, which doesn’t begin easing restrictions until Saturday — Louisiana residents can eat inside restaurants again. Indoor church services can resume. Those wanting some exercise can work out in fitness centers. Barbers and hair and nail salons can open again, along with shopping malls.

The state issued its guidelines for the “Phase 1” reopenings Thursday night. Among limitations: Restaurants, gyms, malls, churches and other service providers where customers enter and linger will be limited to 25% of normal legal capacity. For restaurants, that’s defined as one person per 60 square feet of gross area or 25% of the posted capacity determined by the state fire marshal. Retail stores, many of which were already able to open under earlier restrictions, still must maintain social distancing from, and among, customers.

Ruffin Rodrigue said he was ready to move beyond takeout service at his two Ruffino’s restaurants in Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

“It’s 5% of our business. It kept some people employed,” he said Thursday as he prepared for Friday’s eagerly awaited reopening.

He said he’s now fully staffed with around 230 employees between the two restaurants. And he was ready to see his, and other restaurants, open again.

“I hope these restaurants get the information that they can open safely with the new laws and still make sure customers feel safe,” he said.

Not everyone was immediately taking advantage of the opportunity to open. Lakeside Shopping Center, a mall in Jefferson Parish, announced it would open with limited hours Tuesday, although some of its anchor stores with exterior entrances would open sooner.

The latest order specifies that numerous types of businesses must remain closed, among them massage establishments and spas, tattoo parlors, carnivals, amusement parks, arcades, bars that don’t have state food permits, pool halls, bowling alleys and children’s play centers.

In March, the state was a hot spot for the virus and there were worries that cases of the disease it causes, COVID-19, would overwhelm the state health system. The number of confirmed cases still grows daily. But hospitalizations have trended steadily downward since early April and the percentage of new cases relative to the number of tests is declining. Those are among the hopeful trends leading to Friday’s easing in most of the state.

Restrictions in New Orleans last one more day, under orders from Mayor LaToya Cantrell. On Saturday, new guidelines, similar to the state’s but somewhat more restrictive, will begin. One difference between the city and state: New Orleans is keeping casinos closed. The state will allow casinos outside the city to open Monday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

By KEVIN McGILL Associated Press

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