Governor Has Authority to Close Bars During Pandemic, Federal Judge Rules

A sign hangs outside Bruno’s Tavern in New Orleans on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

A sign hangs outside Bruno’s Tavern in New Orleans on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A federal judge sided with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in a lawsuit brought by 10 bar owners who argued that closing their businesses to prevent the spread of Covid-19 violated their constitutional rights.

A federal judge in New Orleans this week ruled that Gov. John Bel Edwards was within his rights to close bars to prevent the spread of Covid-19, rejecting a legal challenge to the directive that was brought by 10 bar owners.

“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?” U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman wrote in a ruling on Monday. “The answer is state officials.”

Feldman, a Ronald Reagan appointee, issued his ruling after a virtual hearing last week, during which Dr. Alex Billioux, the state’s assistant health secretary, testified that opening bars would likely lead to a surge of positive coronavirus cases. Bar patrons, he noted, often move throughout the building to socialize and mix with a variety of people, and are likely to remove their masks frequently as they eat and drink.

Edwards closed bars to on-site consumption on July 11, the same day he issued a statewide mask mandate. The order was necessary, he said, due to rising numbers of positive coronavirus cases throughout the state.

“While I had hoped to avoid going backwards on restrictions, it is obvious that it is necessary to slow the spread of infection in our state, as Covid-19 has spread to every corner, at a level higher than we have previously seen,” he said in a statement. “This is why I am now mandating face coverings statewide and also closing all bars in Louisiana to on-premises consumption, in addition to putting in limits on the size of indoor gatherings.”

The bar owners had argued that the governor’s order closed their businesses without constitutional due process or equal protection under law. But Feldman said the owners failed to prove that the closure had no “real or substantial relation to the goal of slowing the spread of Covid-19” or that the order was “beyond all question a violation” of their constitutional rights.

“Because the bar owners cannot succeed on the merits,” he wrote, “they cannot obtain an injunction.”

Edwards praised the ruling, saying in a statement that he understood that prolonged closures are difficult for business owners but continue to be necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

"I know these orders are hard on business owners and I did not undertake them lightly,” he wrote on Twitter. “However, they offer the best shot for us to be able to open as much of our economy as possible while still keeping the ability to provide life-saving health care in our hospitals."

Feldman’s ruling came while Edwards was testifying in a similar lawsuit in the state’s Western District. It’s unclear when a decision will be made in that case.

Covid-19 cases in Louisiana have decreased since mid-July, when Edwards’ order went into effect. As of Wednesday, the state confirmed 139,903 cases of coronavirus, and 4,468 deaths.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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