Virus Outbreak Louisiana

The nearly deserted Bourbon Street, which is normally bustling with tourists and revelers, stands in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Thursday, March 19, 2020. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell have ordered all restaurants and bars to close except for takeout, and asked residents to remain home and maintain social distancing from others when outside, due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A task force of New Orleans health and safety officials will help the city crack down on large gatherings and businesses that don't comply with social distancing orders as Louisiana deals with a surge of new COVID-19 cases.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the task force — which will include representatives of city building code inspectors, the state fire marshal's office and others — during a news conference Wednesday. It was held as Louisiana announced a statewide increase of nearly 900 new confirmed cases, bringing the state total to 52,477. A day earlier, cases had jumped by more than 1,300. The state death toll is 3,039.

Hospitalizations statewide stood at 631. That was down by 15 from a day earlier. Hospitalizations, a key concern as the virus spread, are well below a peak of nearly 2,000 in April but have been trending upward since falling well below 600 earlier this month.

"We have to double down on our efforts," said Cantrell, who has imposed restrictions in the city that have been stronger than the state's.

Cantrell and New Orleans health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said there has been no sign that recent racial justice demonstrations have led to new clusters of COVID-19 cases in the city.

"From my observations, I would say that is a very strong case for the effectiveness of wearing masks," said Avegno, who said she saw pictures indicating many protesters were wearing face coverings.

But city officials have expressed concern over news last week that new clusters of the disease were traced to a New Orleans high school graduation party and a gathering involving New Orleans residents at a bar outside the city. Avegno said anyone who attended a high-risk event — any large gathering where people didn't wear masks or keep safely distant from one another — should get tested for the disease.

She said new cases are being spread through the community, not at nursing homes, workplaces or other "congregate settings." She also said she was alarmed at a high percentage of new cases among younger people.

"There seems to be either a lack of understanding or a lack of responsibility among many of our young people and in some cases their parents who are aware of their actions," Avegno said.

Louisiana became one of the nation's hot spots in March but case growth and hospitalizations had been on a downward trend that led to easing some restrictions on public gatherings, dine-in restaurants and other businesses.

The state has been operating under Phase 2 of White House guidelines. But Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state would not be entering the less restrictive Phase 3 this week because of the surge in cases and upward trend in hospitalizations.

As of Wednesday, New Orleans had recorded 7,610 cases since the outbreak began, with 529 deaths. Neighboring Jefferson Parish had more than 9,000 cases and 479 deaths.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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