The Louisiana Department of Health has revoked the food permit for Firehouse BBQ in Watson for failure to comply with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate. It's the first punitive action the state has taken against a restaurant for failure to comply with Edwards’ coronavirus regulations.
But the restaurant remains open in defiance of the state’s sanctions.
At noon on Monday, Firehouse BBQ, located in a strip mall off Highway 16 north of Denham Springs, was bustling with activity. Its dining room was packed with masked and unmasked customers during the lunchtime rush.
The tables, which did not appear to be spaced in accordance with social distancing requirements outlined in Edwards' Phase 2 executive order, were full of patrons. Many more were standing in line to place orders or waiting along the walls to pick up takeout.
The patrons were apparently undeterred by several official notices posted along the front of the building saying the restaurant posed an “Imminent Health Hazard” and had been closed for violating the state sanitary code.
Next to each notice posted by the state Office of Public Health, restaurant employees taped their own contradictory message. The handwritten statement declared the state the mask mandate illegal and implored customers to continue to support their business.
“We are OPEN and will be fighting for the rights of the public and business owners with the LDH in court,” the sign said in part.
When reached by phone on Monday, a restaurant employee said that the manager was not immediately available for comment. But in recent days the owner of Firehouse BBQ has issued several public statements condemning the governor’s coronavirus restrictions.
“Despite the attempted enforcement of an illegal mask mandate, we are conducting business as usual,” said a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “Please show your support by dining in or to go to help us pay for the lawyer that will be fighting for your rights and ours as citizens.”
The restaurant originally publicized its no-mask policy in a Facebook post dated July 23. It claimed that prolonged mask usage caused employees to experience “several medical reactions” including migraines and anxiety attacks.
Multiple scientific studies have shown that masks and other face coverings help slow the spread of the coronavirus by catching respiratory droplets. Universal mask usage has been a central tenet of the state and federal coronavirus mitigation efforts.
The enforcement action against Firehouse BBQ came less than a week after the state temporarily pulled the liquor licenses of four bars for hosting large crowds or allowing on-site consumption of alcohol in violation of other state coronavirus restrictions.
State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said last week that inspectors from his office, the state department of health and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control have conducted more than 5,000 site visits since the state entered Phase 2 of reopening in June.
Browning said the state has adopted a “three-strikes” policy for enforcing coronavirus regulations and that the vast majority of businesses modify their practices after a first warning.
“It’s just not fair for the good businesses out there who have been doing their best to help the state, help our citizens and help our country recover from this pandemic when you have these bad actors out there,” Browning said.
All four will have hearings on August 5 and 6, and “consequences could result in a suspension period of up to 30 days.”
Eleven bar owners in the Acadiana region are suing Edwards and Browning in federal court, claiming the state’s coronavirus restrictions arbitrarily discriminate against one type of business.
At the time of publication, the Louisiana Department of Health has not issued a public statement on the revocation of Firehouse BBQ’s food permit and has not responded to WRKF/WWNO’s request for comment.