BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration started cracking down on violators of its coronavirus restrictions, yanking the permits of four bars found to be violating the governor’s order limiting bars to takeout and delivery in the first penalties enacted by the state for noncompliance.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control suspended permits for bars in Grand Isle, Lake Charles, Gonzales and Harvey, effectively shutting them down by making them unable to serve alcohol for at least a week. The agency said state inspectors found the businesses repeatedly disregarded the Democratic governor’s order shuttering bars to in-person service, selling drinks to customers who stayed onsite.
“We obviously try to be very patient. We try to get compliance,” Edwards said Tuesday. “But there obviously have been some violations that have been repeated enough or flagrant enough that you just have to take more serious actions.”
Stronger enforcement comes as Edwards said Louisiana, which once appeared to successfully reduce the virus’ spread, now has the nation’s highest per capita infection rate.
“Now is such a pivotal time, we felt it was necessary to close those establishments completely,” Edwards said.
The bars have administrative hearings to plead their cases on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6 and could face permit suspensions of up to 30 days because of the violations.
Edwards for months has enacted orders restricting business activity in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. But his administration has been reluctant to issue citations and threaten permits of businesses breaking the rules, instead offering “courtesy” visits to try to get businesses in line with the requirements. Some municipalities, including New Orleans, have taken a stronger hand with penalties.
Fire Marshal Butch Browning, whose office oversees the compliance inspections, said the “vast majority” of businesses have worked to meet the state’s mask mandate, distancing requirements and other rules enacted because of the pandemic. He said businesses found to be out of step with the rules are given chances to modify their practices first, before any punitive actions from the state are considered.
“Our goal is to work with people,” Browning said.
More than 5,000 compliance checks have been conducted by the fire marshal’s office since the state entered its current Phase 2 coronavirus restrictions, Browning said, with 840 inspections done from Thursday through Saturday. Seventy-three violations were found in the most recent round of inspections, most tied to a lack of mask-wearing or appropriate distancing, he said.
The four bars that saw their permits suspended had multiple complaints and violations, Browning said.
Another 1,100 coronavirus infections were confirmed by the state health department Tuesday, and 3,700 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. Nearly 1,600 patients with the disease are hospitalized.
Edwards saw hopeful signs in the fact that COVID-19 hospitalizations have been largely flat for six days, rather than continuing to edge upward in a way that officials worried would overwhelm some regions’ ability to deliver health care services.
Louisiana’s current mask mandate and restrictions on businesses, churches and other activities expire Aug. 7. Edwards said he will announce several days ahead of time whether he’ll extend the same regulations or tweak them.
“The steps that we take next will be driven by those numbers, will be driven by the data and will be driven by science,” he said.
Baton Rouge mayor Sharon Weston Broome announced Tuesday that she’ll extend her local mask mandate until the parish enters Phase 3 of reopening under the White House guidelines.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.