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Federal judge won’t block Louisiana bar closures

Louisiana

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards holds up his own mask, taken off while he was speaking, to remind Louisiana residents that a highly effective thing within their power to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to simply wear a mask, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, at a press conference update on the state’s COVID-19 situation at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge, La. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge in New Orleans refused Monday to block a state order closing bars to stop the spread of COVID-19, handing a defeat to 10 southeast Louisiana bar owners who had sued to stop the closure.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said the closure order was legal under the broad powers a governor has under public health emergencies such as the current pandemic.

Feldman, a judge in the federal court system’s Eastern District of Louisiana, ruled even as a hearing in a similar suit played out in the Western District. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who issued the order last month, was testifying in that lawsuit Monday afternoon, according to a Twitter post by an Edwards spokeswoman. The hearing was before U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Lafayette, where 11 bar owners were fighting the closure order.

Feldman heard arguments Friday. “The case turns on a classic who-decides question: As between democratically accountable state officials and a federal court, who decides what measures best protect Louisianans during a global pandemic?” Feldman wrote. “The answer is state officials.”

Edwards’ office issued a statement soon after the ruling.

“I am pleased that Judge Feldman upheld bar restrictions, which is one of the critical mitigation measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana to protect and save lives,” the statement said. “The evidence is clear that mask mandates and closing on-site consumption at bars work, and more than a month after implementing both measures in Louisiana the data shows they are working.”

The lawyer for bar owners in both cases is Jimmy Faircloth, who served as executive counsel in the administration of Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal. In both cases the bar owners contend that the bars were closed without constitutional due process or equal protection under law.

At the heart of the arguments has been whether statistics support the closures of on-site consumption at bars — the order allows take-out and delivery — while restaurants that contain bars are not closed. State officials have noted that under state guidelines, restaurants’ bar areas must serve food and take other steps to discourage the lack of social distancing that characterizes a stand-alone bar.

It was unclear when Summerhays would rule. Feldman said federal court precedent makes clear that “the bar owners cannot succeed on the merits of their claim that the Governor’s enforcement of the ban of on-site consumption of food or drinks at ‘bars’ violates their constitutional rights.”

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