Governor wins first round in dispute with bar owners, but fight not over

Hearings scheduled for August

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Two federal judges in Louisiana denied motions Friday from a group of bar owners who sought to immediately reopen their establishments against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus order that has closed bars limiting them to takeout service. The cases, however, are still pending and set for hearings.

The bar owners, represented by attorney Jim Faircloth, filed the motions in two jurisdictions: the U.S. Western District Court in Lafayette for a group of bars across Acadiana, and the U.S. Eastern District Court in New Orleans for a group of bars in the Houma area. 

The motions were temporary restraining orders that asked the courts to suspend the governor’s COVID-19 order and allow the bars to reopen immediately prior to any hearings or trials on their lawsuits, which were filed on Thursday. 

Both judges, however, declined to suspend the governor’s order and instead scheduled preliminary injunction hearings. The New Orleans hearing is set for Aug. 14, while the Lafayette hearing is set for Aug. 17.

“I’m not surprised,” Faircloth said. “I’m not surprised at all.”

Faircloth admitted the temporary restraining orders had very little chance of being granted. Nevertheless, he filed them as a way to signal the urgency of the situation.

“It’s a demonstration of the urgency of the case,” he said. “And a TRO gives you the opportunity to demonstrate to the judge why you think you can prevail.”

The lawsuits name Edwards and Fire Marshal Butch Browning, the chief enforcement officer of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, as defendants. The suits dispute the state’s assertion that there is a substantial link between COVID-19 cases and on-site drinking at bars. 

Edwards’ bar restrictions took effect on July 14. The governor had previously allowed bars to reopen and allowed restaurants and other businesses to partially reopen as long as they practiced social distancing and face-mask guidelines. 

However, virus hospitalizations surged, prompting the governor’s 14-day order, which also mandates face coverings and limits gatherings to no more than 50 people. The governor later extended the restrictions until Aug. 7.

The bar owners, in their lawsuits, claim the state has traced only a small number of COVID-19 cases to bars and that data from the Louisiana Department of Health refutes the governor’s position.

As of Friday, Louisiana had 116,280 confirmed cases, 1,546 hospitalizations, and 3,835 deaths from the coronavirus.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.