BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Louisiana's governor Friday postponed the state's presidential primaries due to fears of the coronavirus, making it the first state to push back its election because of the outbreak.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order delaying the April 4 primary until June 20, according to his spokeswoman Christina Stephens. In a statement, he described the step as "necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana from the risk of COVID-19," the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Louisiana also postponed elections in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and in 2008 after hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
Early voting in Louisiana's election was scheduled to start in a week. But with a large number of elderly poll workers and worldwide concerns about people gathering in groups, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin asked Edwards to sign the executive order, saying he didn't feel comfortable continuing with the election plans.
"This weighty decision has been made out of an absolute abundance of caution for Louisiana's voters, voting officials and the general public as a whole," said Ardoin, a Republican.
As of Friday, the number of residents testing positive in the state had jumped to three dozen, centered largely in the New Orleans area, according to the state health department's latest figures. The tests are awaiting confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover within weeks.
Edwards had already declared a public health emergency for the state. On Friday, he announced that he was closing public schools through April 13 and banning large events with more than 250 people. State prisons have suspended visitation, and hospitals and nursing homes were limiting visitor access. As they were around the country, universities were moving to all-online classes.
The ban on large events prompted some of the city's biggest attractions to close. The National WWII Museum said officials don't know when it will reopen. The Audubon Zoo and aquarium, insectarium, planetarium and interpretive center are closing at least through March 28, the Audubon Nature Institute said.
Louisiana's decision to delay the primary puts the state outside the Democratic National Committee's deadline for holding primaries and naming delegates to be credentialed for the July 13-16 convention in Milwaukee.
Current rules require states to hold nominating contests by June 9 and submit delegate rosters for convention floor credentials by June 20, the new date that Louisiana has selected for its primary. Missing those deadlines could result in a state losing half of its votes on the convention floor.
In this case, that almost certainly would affect former Vice President Joe Biden negatively, since he is a heavy favorite to score a large net-delegate gain over Bernie Sanders in Louisiana. It's also possible, however, that Louisiana simply renders itself moot, with Biden pulling away in delegates and in position to make big gains, given that the March 17 primaries will take place as planned.
Jim Roosevelt, co-chairman of the DNC's powerful Rules & Bylaws Committee, said Friday that, for now, the deadlines remain in place. But, he added, "We are sort of playing this process by ear." Roosevelt said the priority is to ensure "a fair process" that the campaigns can accept.
There is precedent for the national party cutting a state's delegates: Michigan and Florida suffered that outcome in 2008, but not because of a public health emergency. The two states moved their primaries into a window the DNC had reserved for early nominating states.