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Politics still reigns in Edwards virus policy

Need still another confirmation that politics, rather than science, drives the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic policy-making of Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards? Just check out confirmation of the worst kept secret – that he would issue relaxations to rules issued about the virus prior to Sep. 11.

Today, Edwards signaled that the state would move into Phase 3. According to federal government guidelines – which in the past Edwards claims he follows along with closed-door advice he asserts he receives from the White House Coronavirus Task Force –the only restriction left for individuals in lower-risk populations is they “should consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.” As for businesses, they can resume “unrestricted staffing of worksites,” but specifically for places such sit-down dining restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues, and places of worship these can operate under “limited” physical distancing protocols (as opposed to “moderate” or “strict” requirements in Phase 2). Even more specifically, gyms can remain open if they adhere to standard sanitation protocols and bars may operate with increased standing room occupancy, where applicable.

At the very least, this means every kind of business can open, although with mild capacity restrictions, including bars which Edwards has kept shut unless they served more food than drinks and/or had a video poker license. Whether Edwards will match action to words remains doubtful, indicated by his announcement saying tomorrow details would be forthcoming – as well they should since his orders expire tomorrow – except that the face covering requirement in public would continue.

That already runs counter to federal government advice, which never has advocated for such a thing but in Phase 2 counsels that large gatherings “should be avoided unless precautionary measures are observed” which could include wearing masks. The Phase 3 guidelines don’t mention that, and while some states in that phase don’t have such a requirement, others do.

The timing is interesting. On Jul. 21, Jul. 30, and Aug. 25 Edwards made announcements about changes/extensions to restrictions, several days before these things went into effect. Even the Jul. 13 major retrenchment which included the mask mandate he made two days early. But on this, he’s going down to the wire, as if he kept waiting for something to emerge that could justify keeping the restrictions longer.

Which actually, in an indictment of his decision-making, he has more justification to keep in place now than he did weeks ago. Consider the data on the four dates on which decisions about restrictions were made, and review the two statistics the federal government advocated prior to moving into a new phase – downward trajectory of cases over 14 days or in positive proportion of tests (there are others, but the state long ago met those) – plus a lagging indicator, hospitalizations, using 14-day rolling averages for very conservative smoothing and trend establishment:

Jul. 11 – cases up 159 percent, positivity up 67 percent, hospitalizations up 51 percent. The crackdown intensified, and the data lent that some credence, even if Edwards’ reaction was overbroad.

Jul. 21 (when the impact of the Jul. 13 changes had just eight days of implementation) – cases up 69 percent, positivity up 10 percent, hospitalizations up 64 percent. You still could make a case for extending restrictions, but clearly a change was coming – and probably more from external factors such as acquisition of herd immunity than anything done from Jul. 13 on, with the median case manifesting five days after infection.

Jul. 30 – cases up 13 percent, positivity down 15 percent, hospitalizations up 37 percent. The target is met, yet Edwards extends the set of restrictions until Aug. 28.

Aug. 25 – cases down 50 percent, positivity down 30 percent, hospitalizations down 23 percent. Yet Edwards extends the set still again to Sep. 11, citing uncertainties (or, perhaps as a more realistic description, grasping at straws as a means to continue his agenda implementation on this issue) about bad weather and a return to college in-person classrooms over a week earlier, the latter of which he had known about for weeks.

And now, compare to Sep. 8 (the day earlier this week normally he would have been expected to announce a decision, but pointedly passed upon) – cases down 7 percent, positivity up 21 percent, hospitalizations down 24 percent. The two criteria together actually are worse than in later August, and no better than at the end of July.

So, what’s different now that essentially compels Edwards to pay lip service at least to loosening the strictures? Three things, none scientific, all political: (1) the decision by schools at all levels and apparently strongly supported by families to resume in-person classes, which contradicted the Edwards narrative about problematic control of the virus, (2) the decision by these to play football, which Edwards opposed until entering Phase 3 so as to make the tail wag the dog, and (3) a public increasingly fatigued at his hesitation, some of which have taken to suing or recalling him. Plus, legislators lie in wait with a petition to cancel his emergency rule-making authority that makes it easier to sign the more the public pushes back.

His agenda in delaying? Edwards has plenty of political reasons to make matters look worse than they are. He backs a frivolous suit – ironically, against himself – that would degrade the integrity of fall elections using the pandemic as an excuse. The longer he can keep more of the economy closed, the more likely he can squeeze money out of federal taxpayers to allow him to continue propping up oversized state government. Additionally, he undoubtedly has acquired a taste for ruling by decree when he can instead of having his plans thwarted by the Legislature.

We’ll see tomorrow if Edwards is playing a shell game or actually grants meaningful relief, but known now is, in proclaiming the state is moving on, that he hasn’t stopped putting politics before science in making these decisions.

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