CENTRAL, La. (AP) — Hundreds of people flouted Louisiana's COVID-19 ban on gatherings, coming on buses and in personal vehicles to the first of three Sunday services at their church a day after New Orleans police broke up a funeral gathering of about 100 people.
An estimated 500 people of all ages filed inside the mustard-yellow and beige Life Tabernacle church in Central, a city of nearly 29,000 outside Baton Rouge.
More than 3,500 Louisiana residents have been diagnosed with the disease caused by a new coronavirus, and more than 150 of them have died, according to state figures released Sunday. Deaths include that of the first federal prison inmate — a man with “serious preexisting conditions” who was being held in Oakdale, Lousiana, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said Saturday.
Assistant ministers and worshippers outside the front doors and in the parking lot at Life Tabernacle told media to leave, saying cameras would not be allowed on the property and worshippers had been told not to talk to reporters. They went inside without further comment.
Across the street, neighbors gathered in a driveway, carefully staying at least 6 feet (about two meters) apart.
Paul Quinn, a resident of Central who lives near the church, says this is a health hazard.
“Other congregations are using the Internet, Skype, and other safe ways to congregate. Why can’t they? What makes them so special?" said Quinn. "I wish state police would come out and do something. This is above our little local police level. The state needs to get involved. If they get out of church and go to the grocery store, it’s a serious health hazard. They don’t know how many people they’re affecting, and they don’t seem to care. That’s a problem.”
The virus has killed seven of more than 160 people diagnosed with the disease in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to state figures.
In New Orleans, police broke up a “funeral repast” of about 100 people Saturday afternoon, issuing a warrant for a 28-year-old man who refused to shut it down and giving the band leader a summons, a news release said. Several complaints about that event were among more than 300 received in the past week about violations of a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said in a separate statement.
More than 1,300 of the COVID-19 diagnoses and 73 of the deaths have been in New Orleans, and Gov. John Bel Edwards repeated on Sunday's national news talk shows what he's been saying for days: the city's hospitals are likely to run out of ventilators by April 4 and of hospital bed space by April 10.
New Orleans tourist economy has also been hit hard, with hotels, restaurants, bars, convention centers and other businesses closed, and food banks running low.
Food banks got a boost when the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed that they could use about 4 million pounds of stockpiled federal emergency supplies. New Orleans leaders had been asking for about a week before USDA granted the waivers Friday night, The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate reported.
“We told them tens of thousands of people have been laid off in the hospitality industry, and they need food now,” City Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “Then they kind of got it.”