Capitol Access Weekly: An Update On Lawsuits Challenging Louisiana's Coronavirus Restrictions

Aug 7, 2020

You don't have to look far to find controversy around mask mandates and business closures. Just scroll through social media or take a trip to the grocery store in Louisiana, multiple groups of business owners have filed lawsuits, challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions.

News Director Patrick Madden spoke with Capitol Access Reporter Paul Braun about the first of those cases.

Patrick Madden: Paul, the first real test of Edwards' restrictions took place in a Baton Rouge courtroom this week. Tell us how it went.

Paul Braun: It went well for the governor. After a two-day hearing, Judge Janice Clark of the 19th Judicial District Court ruled that Edward's mask mandate, shutdown of bars, except for to-go service, and his 50-person cap on indoor gatherings were both legal and justified by the circumstances of the outbreak. She rejected four Jefferson Parish business owners' request for an injunction that would have blocked Edwards' enforcement of those rules.

This suit was filed by two bar owners, a musician and the owner of a catering company, all of whom said they've lost income because of Edwards' restrictions. They argued that shutting down the barrooms while allowing folks to go have a drink at a restaurant or casino was unfair. And they said the cap on indoor gatherings makes it tough for music venues that may have the space to host larger crowds with appropriate social distancing.

And Paul, how did the governor's legal defense team respond to these arguments?

The legal team spent a lot of time on the scientific justification for his actions. They brought in medical experts — a doctor on the ground in Baton Rouge, Rani Whitfield, and Edwards' top public health advisor, Dr. Alex Billioux.

Billioux, in particular, dove deep into the way the state gathers information on where these coronavirus outbreaks occur, and then how that influences Edward's policy. He also talked about the conditions unique to bars that make it particularly difficult to control the spread of the coronavirus.

And then, finally, they talked about the long-standing legal precedents that give really broad power to governors during times of emergency. They cited a 1905 Supreme Court case stemming from the government response to a smallpox outbreak and two rulings from this coronavirus outbreak issued by the High Court last month.

Clark, the judge, agreed and upheld Edwards' restrictions.

Is that it then? Is that the end of this legal fight, or are there other challenges down the road for the governor's restrictions?

Yeah. More challenges to come. Edwards is not done. His legal team will be in a courtroom this time, a federal courtroom, next week. Preliminary hearings are scheduled for Aug. 14 and Aug. 17. Matthew Block, Edwards' executive legal counsel, says their argument won't change, and they're pretty confident that the federal judges will rule in their favor as well.

So was there a sense that by winning this first case, you know, off the bat, that they're going to be on stronger legal footing when there are more challenges in the future?

Well, folks in Edwards' administration have said they wanted to see how this would go before they cracked down on violators of some of his coronavirus restrictions.

So with this out of the way, Edwards says that crackdown is coming — specifically against Firehouse BBQ and Watson, which has had its food permit pulled after the owners refused to comply with the state's masking requirements and to adjust their dining room to meet social distancing requirements. They have remained open since the Office of Public Health pulled that permit about a week ago.

Now, Edwards hasn't said what that enforcement action is going to look like or when it's going to happen, but he says it is happening now.

NOTE: Shortly after this segment aired Aug. 8, 2020, Edwards announced that the Louisiana Department of Health obtained a temporary restraining order against Firehouse BBQ. The order prohibits the owners from operating the restaurant until an Aug. 18 hearing.