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Edwards Administration Defends Coronavirus Restrictions From Renewed Legal Challenges

Paul Braun
Matthew Block, Executive Legal Counsel for La. Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses the media outside the 19th JDC Courthouse. Baton Rouge, La. August 5, 2020.

Representatives of Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration were in court Wednesday defending the state’s coronavirus restrictions during the preliminary hearings in a legal challenge brought by four Jefferson Parish business owners.

The lawsuit is one of at least three legal challenges to the state’s coronavirus restrictions pending in state or federal court. It takes aim at Edwards’ statewide mask mandate, 50-person limit on indoor gatherings and prohibition of on-site consumption of alcohol at Louisiana’s bars — restrictions he implemented in mid-July as coronavirus cases surged to new heights.

Edwards and state health officials have credited those additional restrictions for the “fragile progress” recently made in the fight against the coronavirus, which to date has infected more than 120,000 Louisianans and killed nearly 4,000. On Tuesday, Edwards announced that the state would remain under the modified Phase 2 restrictions until at least Aug. 28.

But the plaintiffs say the restrictions have caused “irreparable harm” and are seeking an immediate injunction that would prevent the state from enforcing rules they call “unconstitutionally vague, and riddled with many exceptions.”

Ronald Dalleo, owner of Cleary Tavern in Metairie, said there was no difference between his bar, which under Edwards’ order is prohibited from serving alcohol on-site, and the restaurant next door, which is open and has permits to serve both food and alcoholic beverages.

“I just want to be treated fairly,” Dalleo said. “I definitely feel like I’m being discriminated against unduly.”

Justin Molaison, a musician and one of the attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs, testified that Edwards’ 50-person limit on indoor gatherings has unfairly shuttered music venues that have enough space to abide by other social distancing requirements.

“It seems, in my opinion, to be arbitrary,” Molaison said. “There’s 50 people we could put in a courtroom, and there’s 50 people you could put in the Superdome or Tiger Stadium. It doesn’t change based on the venue.”

Attorney Stephen Petit said one of the other plaintiffs was unable to attend Wednesday’s hearing after testing positive for COVID-19.

James Garner, one of the attorneys representing Edwards, asked Judge Janice Clark to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that governors’ broad regulatory powers in normal circumstances are even broader during public health crises. Garner cited legal precedents dating back to 1905 and as recently as last month that he said establish governors’ rights to take sweeping actions to preserve public health during times of emergency.

But Clark allowed the proceedings to continue, saying the state’s defense was of public interest.

Edwards' defense team focused on the health metrics Edwards relied upon when crafting his coronavirus policies. Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of Louisiana’s Office of Public Health, said bars pose unique challenges in containing the virus.

As people drink, patrons who may have intended to limit their social interactions and maintain safe social distance, often end up unmasked for long periods of time and mingling with people outside of the group they came with.

“Bar owners told us they didn’t want to have to break people up,” Billioux said. “They didn’t want to have to be the fun police.”

Billioux attributed the recent decrease in new cases and flattening hospitalizations directly to the restrictions put in place last month.

When asked what would happen if Edwards additional restrictions were removed, Billioux said the state, “would see a very rapid increase in cases” that could threaten healthcare capacity in the capital region.

The hearing will resume 10 a.m. Thursday with the plaintiffs’ cross examination of Bilioux.

Two separate groups of bar owners in the New Orleans and Acadiana regions have filed lawsuits in federal court

Earlier Wednesday, two bars that had previously been sanctioned for violating the governor’s coronavirus restrictions had their liquor licenses reinstated by the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control after the owners agreed to pay a fine and comply with those regulations moving forward.

The owners of the Pelican Pub in Gonzales and Frosty Factory in Lake Charles each agreed to pay a $250 fine. Both bars are on probation and could face additional penalties of $1,000 if they violate the state’s coronavirus restrictions again.

The owners of the Sand Dollar Tiki Hut in Grand Isle and Wo-de’s Chill Spot in Harvey are scheduled for ATC hearings on Thursday.

Matthew Block, Edwards' executive legal counsel, said after Wednesday’s proceedings that the administration welcomes the opportunity to prove to the public that the restrictions are necessary

“The governor understands the challenges COVID-19 is having is having on businesses impacted by the virus itself, by the limitations in the governor’s order,” Block said. “But we know we can’t open up safely unless we have control of the virus. That’s what these measures are [for].”

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect number of cases connected to bars.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.