A petition to end Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide emergency proclamation on COVID-19 was expected to be delivered to the governor’s office Friday evening.
The petition would suspend Edwards’ emergency powers, which have been used to issue mask mandates and business capacity restrictions as well as to direct resources for COVID response for seven days.
It comes as Republican legislators have advanced a slate of legislation to limit the governor’s emergency powers, including one bill, which passed both chambers, that would allow legislative leaders to review emergency orders after 30 days, and call for votes to nullify parts of them.
But Edwards and local politicians say that ending the emergency proclamation would not only end life-saving disease control measures, but strip state and local governments of federal funding.
State law allows the legislature “in consultation with the public health authority,” to terminate “a state of emergency” by submitting a petition ”signed by a majority of the surviving members of either house.” The state House of Representatives was expected to have enough signatures on Friday, following Republican Speaker Clay Schexnayder signalling his approval of the measure.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health directed questions about the role of public health authorities in the petition to the governor’s office.
In a press conference this afternoon, Edwards said that he had not yet received a copy of the petition, and could not comment on the specifics. However, he described the petition as “reckless, irresponsible, and unconscionable.” He also suggested that the petition was unconstitutional, indicating that it’s likely that once he receives it, he will challenge it in court.
“I don’t know if [legislators’] point is to open up more businesses. I don’t know which ones are closed” beyond bars in some specific locations, said Edwards.
“You can get rid of the declaration,” he said. “But you’re not going to get rid of the emergency. You’re going to take away our tools to deal with it.”
Caleb Reese-Aiden, a legislative assistant with Representative Blake Miguez — who has pushed to limit Edwards’ emergency authority for months — said Friday afternoon that he could not yet provide a copy of the petition, because it existed only as a single physical document that was circulating on the House floor to be signed. Calls to Schexnayder’s office were not returned.
It appears that the law also gives state legislators the authority to end local emergency declarations. However, Reese-Aiden said that Representative Miguez does not believe the petition will affect parish emergency declarations, although his office was still attempting to review the final document.
He said that the final petition was likely to be “very similar” to the version that began circulating in June, which shifted the power to declare emergencies to parish presidents and municipal officials. He said that there were “a couple of small changes, but nothing major” to the current document, although the June version cancelled the emergency proclamation for 60 days.
New Orleans officials also believed that local restrictions wouldn’t be directly affected. State law provides parish leaders the ability to issue their own emergency orders, as Mayor LaToya Cantrell has done.
“We can always be more restrictive than the state, just not less restrictive,” said Trey Caruso, a spokesperson for the city. He did not return a request for further comment about the expected impact on testing or healthcare in the city.
It’s not clear what effect the petition will have, given the questions about its constitutionality and that it’s only slated to stay in effect for a week. But the lack of a statewide emergency order could mean financial repercussions for the state, officials said.
“To get funding from [FEMA], there has to be a disaster declaration from the governor,” said Earl Armstrong, a spokesperson for the FEMA branch that oversees Louisiana. He directed all specific questions about FEMA-funded programs to the state.
According to a statement from State Rep. Mandie Landry, Democrat of New Orleans, “Emergency response experts have said that even a temporary cancellation of the governor’s emergency order would likely terminate all of Louisiana’s agreements with FEMA. We could lose billions in federal aid that provides medical services, COVID testing, food banks and so many other important items that we are depending on in this crisis.”
Edwards made a similar point in his press conference. If the emergency proclamation ends, he said, the National Guard would no longer be authorized to provide drive up testing or assist in the shipping and distribution of personal protective equipment.
Drive through testing at the University of New Orleans campus and Mahalia Jackson Theater, operated by the National Guard, has operated in New Orleans since March.
Edwards added that the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness would no longer be able to “respond to local government requests for COVID aid,” and that GOHSEP would not be able to sign off on plans to hire extra healthcare workers to handle future COVID surges.
“Should a vaccine become available, the Department of Health would not be allowed, absent a public health declaration, to do all of the steps necessary to allocate and administer that vaccine.”
Nicholas Chrastil contributed to this report.