Louisiana mask mandate, virus rules challenged in court

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration argued Wednesday that Louisiana’s statewide mask mandate and bar restrictions have helped to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, hoping to persuade a state district judge to uphold the regulations in a lawsuit challenging them as unconstitutional.

After a daylong hearing from witnesses on both sides of the litigation, testimony in the case was scheduled to continue Thursday.

Four Jefferson Parish residents, including a musician, a catering business owner and two bar owners, are asking Judge Janice Clark to declare the rules null and void and prohibit the Democratic governor from enforcing them.

The lawsuit argues Edwards’ original order requiring the masks, banning indoor gatherings above 50 people and limiting bars to takeout and delivery “is unconstitutionally vague, riddled with many exceptions” and shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

Ronald Dalleo, owner of Cleary Tavern, said his bar serves food and has a similar number of tables and similar layout to a neighboring restaurant that is allowed to remain open to onsite service with alcoholic drinks. He said his business shouldn’t be treated differently because it has a different permit and he sells a few hamburgers less than that restaurant.

“What I’m asking for is to be treated fairly,” Dalleo said during his testimony. “I definitely feel like I’m being discriminated against.”

Dalleo was among two of the plantiffs to testify Wednesday. Another was unable to appear in court for Wednesday’s hearing because she tested positive for the coronavirus, her lawyer said.

Edwards announced Tuesday that he was extending the face covering requirement, bar rules and other coronavirus restrictions through Aug. 28, as the state continues to have one of the nation’s highest per capita virus infection rates in the last two weeks. Edwards said Louisiana has “made early fragile gains” in slowing the virus spread but couldn’t risk lifting the restrictions yet.

The White House’s coronavirus task force recommended that Louisiana close bars and require face coverings to reduce public health risks and to lessen the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.

Dr. Alex Billioux, the governor’s chief public health adviser, testified that Louisiana started seeing a drop in new confirmed coronavirus cases, fewer coronavirus-like illnesses at hospitals and a decline in new hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients two weeks after the mask mandate and bar restrictions began.

“We are seeing the numbers going in the right direction,” Billioux said.

Billioux said the state traced 41 outbreaks to bars and expects that many more cases likely stemmed from the businesses. He said bars “present a really unique challenge” to containing a virus outbreak, because people go there specifically to socialize and aren’t inclined to stay away from others in that setting.

“It just is the perfect opportunity to spread the virus,” he said.

Lawyers for the business owners and musician who filed the lawsuit will get their chance to question Billioux on Thursday.

One of Edwards’ attorneys, James Garner, argued the government has a right to regulate businesses under normal times and courts have given even greater deference to a governor’s regulatory authority during the pandemic. Edwards is doing his best to respond to a crisis, and the plaintiffs didn’t offer any testimony to suggest the governor’s response is unwarranted or improper, Garner said.

“They don’t have any medical evidence to show he’s gone off the rails,” Garner told the judge.

Critics say Edwards is infringing on personal freedom and crippling Louisiana’s economy with his restrictions. At least three pending lawsuits in state and federal court are seeking to have some of the rules thrown out as overstepping the governor’s authority.

Louisiana’s health department says 3,978 state residents have died from COVID-19 disease. The rolling average number of new coronavirus cases daily in Louisiana has been falling over the past two weeks, but the state still is seeing more than 1,800 new cases confirmed per day.

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.