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Louisiana COVID-19 restrictions taking center stage in court

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BATON ROUGE - Governor John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 restrictions are taking center stage in federal and state court.

On Monday, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled that the order to close bars is constitutional.

Another federal judge in Lafayette heard first testimony from the state, including Edwards, and bar owners in a similar lawsuit also on Monday.

Bar owners in both lawsuits filed against the state argue that closing or limiting their businesses is illegal and unconstitutional.

In light of this week's hearings, management at Fred’s Bar in Tigerland is now saying they just want to be treated the same as other businesses that are open.

"You know we're hanging in there but we don't know when the end is,” Fred’s General Manager Jason Nay said.

For bars all across the state, adapting during the coronavirus pandemic has turned into surviving. That’s why a handful of bar owners have turned to the courts as a last resort.

In New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled on Monday that the state order temporarily closing bars was legal under the authority of the governor during a state of emergency, like a pandemic. Another federal judge could rule on a similar suit in Lafayette as early as Tuesday.

Right now, bars with and without food permits can only serve drinks on the go. Nay says that "for a business that sells atmosphere, to-go drinks just isn't going to work for us.”

In his testimony given Monday in Lafayette, Edwards pointed to data that shows an improvement in COVID-19 infection rates across the state over the past month since stopping on-site consumption at bars and issuing a statewide mask mandate.

The Louisiana Department of Health did confirm an outbreak of cases in Tigerland in June. Statewide, there have been a total of 41 outbreaks reported at bars tied to 468 cases as of August 12.

Health officials and Edwards maintain that open bars would continue to be hot spots for the virus. They say people drinking and socializing are less likely to wear masks and socially distance.

Nay said bar owners know how to respond to an outbreak and reduce the chances of patrons getting sick.

"Clean the place and do what we can so that we're not a target again,” Nay said.

Nay believes that Fred’s and all bars should have the opportunity to operate like restaurants with bars that are open under the state's current COVID-19 guidelines.

"Let us have waiters and waitresses, let us do table service. I'm not asking to put people in harm's way any different than a restaurant does, I'm just asking if we can play by the same rules as restaurants. Let us wait on people. We'll try to have as many tables outside, we'll socially distance our tables but give us a fighting chance,” Nay said.

On Tuesday, a different challenge related to the governor's mask mandate for businesses will be heard.

Firehouse BBQ in Denham Springs originally had its business license pulled for not requiring masks inside.

A judge ruled last week the restaurant could keep operating and banned more action from the state until that scheduled hearing.

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