BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Eleven Louisiana bar owners filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. John Bel Edwards, arguing his coronavirus rules limiting bars to takeout and delivery unlawfully target one business sector and impose overly harsh restrictions.
The lawsuit names the Democratic governor and Fire Marshal Butch Browning, the chief enforcement officer of the virus regulations for Edwards, as defendants. It was filed in Lafayette federal court by bars located across Acadiana, including in New Iberia, Morgan City, Youngsville and Lafayette.
The bars argue Edwards cannot show a “real or substantial relation” between the closure of bars to onsite drinking and the public health crisis. They say only a small number of known COVID-19 cases have been traced to bars by the state, and they say none of those cases were tracked to their businesses.
Lawyer Jimmy Faircloth, representing the bar owners, said Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions “may have warranted the benefit of the doubt” in the early days of the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. But he said more scientific data is available, and he argues that data undermines Edwards’ decision.
“Further, the public has become well versed in the art of social distancing, and businesses have learned to alter their environments to accommodate this practice. Simply put, although perhaps justified months ago, it is no longer sufficient to rely on hysteria, hearsay or biased commentary as a basis to impose overly-broad, draconian restrictions on fundamental rights,” wrote Faircloth, a one-time executive counsel to former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The Louisiana Department of Health says it has traced 464 confirmed coronavirus infections to 41 bars, among the largest number of cases tracked to a specific type of business.
Edwards banned onsite consumption at bars earlier this month after previously allowing bars to reopen with restaurants and other businesses. But the governor and his health advisers said bars have shown to be specifically problematic because people tend to huddle closely together inside without masks while drinking and lapse in their virus precautions the more alcohol they consume.
The White House’s coronavirus task force recommended that Louisiana close bars to reduce public health risks and to lessen the spread of the virus.
“Gov. Edwards is confident that the action he has taken to close bars to on premises consumption is both legal and necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana, and the White House agrees with him,” Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said in a statement Wednesday.
She added: “Louisiana has seen increasing case counts in recent weeks, and the governor did what is necessary to reduce the spread and make sure our health care system is not overrun.”
Hospital leaders in the Acadiana region have worried about the rising number of COVID-19 patients in their facilities, saying they are running out of space and canceling some elective surgeries.
The bars argue in their lawsuit that the virus cases tracked to bars represent less than half of 1 percent of the more 100,000 confirmed cases across Louisiana. The lawsuit says that suggests bars do not pose a disproportionately high risk to the public that justifies restrictions targeted specifically to them. They say Edwards’ actions violate federal and state constitutional protections.
Louisiana has had more than 112,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since early March, according to the state health department. Another 69 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the number of Louisiana residents who have died from COVID-19 to 3,769.