BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Governor John Bel Edwards was handed a victory Thursday, Aug. 6 in the 19th JDC as a judge denied an injunction against his orders closing bars, requiring masks and limiting gatherings to 50 people or less.
In her ruling, Judge Janice Clark spoke passionately about being in the middle of a pandemic and there being a blight on the people. Clark said the police power afforded to Gov. Edwards is an awesome power, one to be respected and one which can be maintained until such a time it can be addressed by means less stringent and less powerful.
Clark said the court was firmly of the opinion the governor has exercised the power deliberately in an effort to be proactive and to limit the loss of life.
Four Jefferson Parish business owners and their attorneys began making their case Wednesday that Gov. Edwards overstepped his legal boundaries by ordering bars to close and banning gatherings that involve more than 50 people.
Ronnie Dalleo, owner of Cleary Tavern in Metairie, one of the plaintiffs on the suit, argued the restrictions have caused irreparable harm to his business, citing lost wages, employees, and sales. Dalleo says his bar should remain open under the same guidelines restaurants across the state are operating under.
“We’re asking for equal treatment,” he said. “Give us the same rules, give us masks, social distancing. My ballroom, which can sell food, but we sell less than 50% of food, I can space my tables out, employees can wear masks, we can follow any rules that any restaurant or any other business can follow.”
The crux of the plaintiffs’ argument relies on the legality of the governor’s power to exercise such orders with one fell swoop.
Attorneys for Gov. Edwards made the case the restrictions are necessary in the name of public safety. They largely made their case surrounding testimony from Dr. Alex Billioux, the assistant secretary of health for the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH).
Dr. Billioux spoke extensively about the trends and spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, notably explaining the rationale behind the closure of bars and limiting gatherings to 50 people or fewer.
According to testimony from Dr. Billioux, bars were responsible for at least a quarter of the state’s COVID-19 outbreaks before the governor ordered them closed.
Billioux says at a bar, people are more likely to be in close proximity with others outside of their group, talk loudly or lean in when speaking, and not wear their masks because of continuous drinking. He says when people begin drinking, their self awareness is also reduced and when you combine all of these factors together, it’s a “perfect case” for COVID-19 to be spread.
“We have had the most cases per capita in the country, and there is more COVID-19 in our state now than ever, which is why I will continue to let science and data drive my decisions when it comes to the health and safety of the people of Louisiana,” Edwards said. “This is how we will be able to open as much of our economy as possible without overwhelming our capacity to deliver life-saving health care in our hospitals.”
Dr. Billioux also defended the restrictions on gatherings. He says an individual has a 90% chance of coming into contact with someone infected with COVID-19 in a gathering of 50 people, adding that it’s harder to control that spread in large groups and that’s why recommendations were made to institute these restrictions.
“The governor knows, because of very specific recommendations for bars, related to the types of activities you have at bars where you have people close together drinking without masks, talking to each other, talking loudly over music, and then you see the number of cases we’ve had at the bars, all of those things combined together led to the conclusion that not just for Louisiana, for the surrounding states that have had recommendations from the White House, that that is where we need to be right now to slow this down,” said Matthew Block, an attorney for Gov. Edwards.
During closing arguments, counsel for the four Jefferson Parish business owners who filed the injunction, tried to make the case that there were “clearly” less restrictive ways to protect residents. Attorneys also argued the orders denied bars the opportunity to prove owners could safely operate under the same guidelines issued to restaurants.
The governor’s attorneys took aim at the claim the business owners rights were being violated, saying there is no protected class to operate a business and the rights to operate such a business are not protected when those restrictions imposed on them are reasonable and protect the interest of the public.
Gov. Edwards counsel also likened him to a general fighting a war and the powers afforded to him during states of emergency grant him the ability to issue proclamations that have the force of the law.
“The evidence is clear that mask mandates and bar closures work,” Edwards said in a press release. “Not only have they been proven effective in other states and countries, but 24 days into our own bar closure to on-site consumption and mask mandate our data is showing early signs of improvements in terms of decreasing reports of COVID-like illness, new cases and hospitalizations. What we are doing is necessary, and what we are doing is working. Further, my orders are fully consistent with the constitution and statutory authority I have as governor to protect our people during a public health emergency.”
The decision by Judge Clark now opens the door for Edwards to take action against businesses refusing to comply with his orders.
During his address on Thursday, the governor was asked if he intended to “crack down” on Firehouse BBQ in Watson, Louisiana, to which he said yes.
Firehouse has been operating without its food permit after it was revoked by the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) for refusing to require its employees or customers wear masks and not following social distancing guidelines.
In a statement to WAFB, a representative with LDH said “In these situations, the Department has a number of actions that can be taken against a business. One, which we’ve already taken in this case is revoking a food permit. Beyond that, financial penalties can be imposed or court action can be taken against the business. The Department is reviewing its options and will announce its next steps when appropriate.”
LDH also stressed “every Louisianan has the power and duty to not reward businesses that are putting resident’s health at risk and instead support businesses who are doing the right thing.”
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