Judge sides with Louisiana governor, upholds virus rules

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana judge Thursday upheld Gov. John Bel Edwards' statewide mask mandate and bar restrictions as legal and enforceable, rejecting claims from Jefferson Parish business owners that the Democratic governor overstepped his legal authority in enacting the coronavirus rules.

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State District Judge Janice Clark delivered her ruling after a two-day hearing in which the plaintiffs argued Edwards' regulations were illegal, unfair and an overreaction to the coronavirus outbreak. The Edwards administration countered that the rules helped to slow the spread of the virus and protect public safety.

“The court is firmly of the opinion that the governor has exercised his power deliberately, on behalf of the people of this state and in an effort to be proactive to limit the loss of life,” Clark said.

She handed down her decision as Louisiana's health department announced the death toll from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus has topped 4,000.

Lawyer and plaintiff Justin Molaison said he hadn't decided whether to appeal Clark's ruling. He seemed to acknowledge the uphill battle he expected when he declared in court at the start of the hearing's second day: “It's like David going against Goliath.”

Edwards planned Thursday to issue an extension of all of his coronavirus regulations — including the ones upheld in court — 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.

Louisiana’s health department says 4,028 state residents have died from COVID-19. The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases has been falling recently, but the state still is seeing more than 1,700 new cases confirmed per day over the last two weeks.

The lawsuit was filed by Molaison, a musician in addition to being a lawyer; a catering business owner; and two bar owners in the New Orleans suburbs. One of the plaintiffs was unable to appear in court for the hearing because she tested positive for the coronavirus, according to her lawyer.

They challenged Edwards' July 11 order mandating mask wearing, banning indoor gatherings above 50 people and limiting bars to takeout and delivery as unconstitutional, leaning on a similar assessment made by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry.

“The constitution is not suspended when the governor declares a state of emergency,” Molaison said in his closing argument. “Any government that has made the grave decision to suspend the liberties of a free people during a health emergency, they should also be expected to use the least restrictive means in doing so.”

Multiple lawsuits in state and federal court are seeking to have some of Edwards' rules thrown out as overstepping the governor’s authority. Thursday’s ruling by Clark was the first decision in one of the lawsuits.

“I’m confident that I am doing what is necessary, that we are following the science, that we are following the data, that we are implementing best practices ... and that I’m doing it through the authority that I have as governor,” Edwards said.

The White House’s coronavirus task force recommended that Louisiana close bars and require face coverings — and add even further business restrictions that Edwards hasn't enacted — to reduce public health risks and to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

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.

As he cross-examined Billioux, Molaison questioned the testing data and case tracking information submitted by the Edwards administration. He suggested that Edwards was arbitrarily picking which White House coronavirus recommendations to enact, that people who can gather at bars will simply congregate elsewhere and that bars were being unfairly singled out for punishing restrictions.

“It should be clear to this court that there is a particular bias (against) bar owners,” Molaison said.

One of Edwards' attorneys, James Garner, said the governor was making wise, tough decisions “in a war against an insidious, vicious disease.” He said the public interest of all 4.6 million Louisiana residents must rate above the protections of certain businesses.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that the governor has done anything, anything that is irrational,” Garner said. “The actual medical evidence shows it's working. Now, we’re not out of the woods, but it’s working.”

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.


Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.