Amid frustrated groans from many furloughed workers and many in the business community, Gov. John Bel Edwards extended his stay-at-home order until May 15.
Edwards said he was trying to strike the right balance between public health and economic health, explaining that, since Louisiana depended heavily on tourism, conventions and sports fans, any spike or relapse of COVID-19 cases could be doubly fatal to the state’s economy.
Less than 48 hours after the extension, Edwards was sitting side-by-side with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South meeting with the nation’s top Republican. As they sat in gold fabric chairs flanking the executive fireplace, before them on facing settees were Vice President Mike Pence; Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief immunologist leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force; Dr. Deborah Birx, White House COVID Response Coordinator; Dr. Blythe Adamson, health scientist; and Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health.
“John Bel and I,” began Trump, “it looked like Louisiana was going to be missed for a while [by the Coronavirus]. It was not registering and then all of a sudden, Tony [Dr. Fauci] called me and Deborah [Dr. Birx] called me and said, ‘What’s going on in Louisiana?’ because it went like a rocket ship [up in COVID cases] all of a sudden.”
Edwards added, “We had the highest growth rate of cases in the world. We were on a trajectory to match Spain and Italy, so when you begin modeling that, we knew we had a short period of time. We got 350 ventilators from the stock pile -thank you very much [to the president]- and sourced a few hundred more as a state. We built the beds and we’ve serviced about 200 COVID patients at the [New Orleans Morial] Convention Center but nowhere near what we had feared and we thank you very much.”
Edwards also thanked the president for promising 200,000 more tests to be used in Louisiana.
Trump invited Louisiana’s Democratic governor as one of only a handful of governors he feels has tried to cooperate fully with the White House. The day before, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sat in the same chair and the next day told Floridians he’d take a more controlled response such as allowing the state’s 41,000 restaurants to open but with only 25-percent occupancy. Louisiana is trying to abide by the Trump administration’s criteria of COVID case reductions for 14 straight days before reopening. Of the nine states that have begun reopening, some without regard to social distancing, none have met the 14-day criteria.
Just five months ago, the President was in Louisiana two days before the gubernatorial election campaigning against Edwards for Republican Eddie Respone. Though 58 percent of Louisianans voted for Trump in 2016, they overrode the president’s choice last November and returned West Point graduate John Bel Edwards for a second term.
Edwards quickly forgave the president, saying he learned lessons from studying the administrations of other governors, primarily that of a past governor. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards practiced bipartisanship, becoming close friends with staunch Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. Edwin Edwards said at the time he quickly understood that federal purse strings ran through the White House.
The bipartisan diplomacy paid off in this unprecedented pandemic for the current Edwards and the state of Louisiana as the state became the southern epicenter of COVID-19. The president’s relationship with the Democratic governor developed quickly with a trust that allowed Edwards to be firm when ventilators were needed but honest about not taking federal aid that was not needed.
“I called John Bel because we were ready to start another hospital [in Louisiana],” said Trump. “We just finished one hospital with a lot of beds and we were ready to start another and he was doing so well and the state was doing so well, I called him and said, ‘Do you think we should build that hospital?’ I think it was 500 beds. And he said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to need it. So it’s good not to build some things and I think we put it someplace where they did need it.”
“Mr. President,” Edwards added, “look at the plan you made for 30 days to stop the spread. The mitigation measures that you promoted in that plan are carried forward in the guidelines for reopening. It’s sort of a seamless way to do it by keeping those mitigation measures in place as you need to in order to reopen, especially for the vulnerable population.”
Reopening is the stickler in every state. But despite helping federal aid to other states by taking what was only needed, the Democratic Louisiana governor was still shunned for what appears to be partisan politics. Two weeks prior, a group of Republican southern governors conferenced about strategies to reopen but the Democratic governors of Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia were left out.
At this meeting in this Oval Office, party was left behind.
“I just want to congratulate you,” President Trump wrapped up amid clicking shutters in a room packed with reporters not practicing social distancing or wearing masks. The president also congratulated Louisiana for LSU’s National Football Championship, mentioning that he and Governor Edwards had called Coach Ed Orgeron before starting the meeting. “He’s a character but he knows how to coach a team, I’ll tell you that,” crowed President Trump. “Your quarterback [Joe Burrow] just went Number One in the NFL draft, an easy Number One. He got the most votes ever for the Heisman Trophy, unanimous, I think--”
“And he’s a great person,” Edwards added, “a wonderful citizen. I think he’s going to do Cincinnati proud.”
Edwards wrapped up the conciliatory meeting, offering the president, “We’re looking forward to moving ahead and just appreciate your work and your contributions to our efforts. It’s been very helpful.”
Responded the president, “It’s an honor working with you and the people of Louisiana. Great people. They’ve really gone through a lot.”
Edwards chuckled, “Well, I’ll just say they’re the best!”
The president finished, “They’re right there! They’re great people.”