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Louisiana Judge Upholds Governor's Coronavirus Restrictions

Paul Braun
Gov. John Bel Edwards. August 6, 2020

A Louisiana judge upheld Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate, closure of bars and 50-person limit on indoor gatherings Thursday, rejecting four Jefferson Parish business owners’ claims that the state’s coronavirus restrictions violate their constitutional rights.

Public health officials and attorneys representing Edwards argued over a two-day hearing that the restrictions the governor imposed last month in response to a resurgence of the coronavirus were scientifically justified and well within his legal authority during a public health emergency.

19th Judicial District Court Judge Janice Clark agreed with the administration, denying the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction that would remove his restrictions and allow bars to reopen.

“The court is firmly of the opinion that the governor has exercised his power deliberately and on behalf of the people of this state in an effort to be proactive, to limit the loss of life,” Clark said.

Edwards said Thursday that he was pleased by Clark’s ruling. He credits the mask mandate, limits on gathering size and shutdown of bars for the “modest improvement” the state has seen in key coronavirus metrics.

“It’s not just that I’m authorized to do it, because we’re talking about lives, I believe that I am obligated to do these things as well,” Edwards said of the restrictions that took effect July 14. “There is nothing easy about the work that we are doing, but it is absolutely essential, it is legal, and we now know without any doubt that it is effective.”

Attorney Justin Molaison told the Associated Press Thursday that he has not decided if he will appeal the ruling. Molaison also works as a musician and was a plaintiff in the case, along with two Jefferson Parish bar owners, and the owner of a catering company.

Molaison argued that people who rely on bars and music venues for their income have been “arbitrarily singled out” by Edwards’ orders. 

“We’re seeing the end of the small business, and this unfortunately is the first step,” Molaison said in his closing arguments. “These businesses are gasping for their last breath.”

Attorney James Garner, representing the administration, said Edwards’ sweeping actions were supported by well-established legal precedent, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1905 and as recent as last month.

“Government regulations protect the masses,” Garner said. “In a time of pandemic, government gets great deference to regulate.”

Garner added that Edwards actions were rooted in science and in “the public interest of 4.67 million Louisianans.”

The ruling gives Edwards an early legal victory as his administration prepares for preliminary hearings in three separate federal lawsuits targeting the same restrictions.

Matthew Block, the governor’s executive counsel, said the state’s argument will not change, and he is confident that the federal judges will also rule in favor of the administration.

With the first legal challenge out of the way, Edwards said he will crack down on the Firehouse BBQ, the Livingston Parish restaurant that flouted coronavirus regulations and has remained open after the Office of Public Health pulled its food permit.

Edwards signed an executive order Thursday that extends his current coronavirus restrictions — including those upheld by Clark’s ruling — until Aug. 28.

“We have flattened the curve before. We can do it again if we just double down on these proven effective mitigation measures and restrictions,” Edwards said.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.