Report from Louisiana: Reopening Discontent

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – We broke quarantine yesterday and crossed the border into Texas.  With Louisiana still shut down and under stay-at-home orders for another two weeks, Texas looks pretty good right now.

For weeks the border has been closed to Louisiana residents, but now that has been lifted and Texas shops and restaurants are open, so we headed west.

We headed to Jefferson, Texas, a small, historic town in East Texas. Residents of Marion County supported Trump heavily in the last presidential election with a 71% strong vote over Hilary Clinton (27%).  Many of the people there are thrilled to see Louisiana customers back in Jefferson; the town has a quaint historic district filled with antique shops, specialty fudge shops, and eateries that have suffered financially since the closure. There are a couple of old, historic hotels and at less than an hour away from Shreveport, Jefferson is a popular day trip destination. People in Louisiana spend a lot of tourist dollars in Jefferson, so opening the state back up to travelers was a welcome move. They have been hit hard by the COVID closure.

Shopkeepers, bartenders, servers, residents, literally everyone we talked to, was thrilled that the state is open and people are coming back to spend money and browse the shops. We talked with several people who praised Trump’s COVID response and others who were firmly rooted in the belief that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is keeping Louisiana closed only for federal dollars.

The rhetoric in Louisiana circles is becoming more and more divided over the Edwards response. As it turns out, his stay-at-home order was very non-specific and would have allowed many businesses to stay open in some capacity, significantly reducing the large numbers of people forced into unemployment. The original stay-at-home order, issued March 22, specifically closed salons, gyms, tattoo shops, among others. Businesses not specified could stay open with restrictions, however that was never clear. As a result, places like Barnes and Noble, Ulta Beauty, sporting goods stores, craft stores, among others, closed when all along they could have stayed open with restrictions.

It has all been very murky and now the discontent is rising:

The catalyst is Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to extend Louisiana’s statewide stay-at-home order through May 15. The Democratic governor said the move is rooted in science and public safety. Republicans are bristling, preferring a parish-by-parish approach to loosening restrictions that have shuttered businesses and forced hundreds of thousands into unemployment.

At stake is “hundreds of millions of federal dollars in disaster aid for businesses and the state.”

Is Edwards playing it safe and only looking out for the health of Louisiana residents? Or is he parlaying the entire situation into a federal dollar windfall for the state? Has he been intentionally vague about his stay at home order? The answers depend on who you ask.

The bottom line is that the longer Louisiana stays closed, and with neighboring states returning to normal, the pressure on Edwards to reopen the state will increase. Louisiana dollars will be spent in the shops, restaurants, and hotels of other states.

Louisiana legislators return to Baton Rouge today, reconvening their session after a COVID hiatus and even the timing of the legislative return has been contentious.

Looks like the new normal in Louisiana is a lot like the old normal.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.

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