A GOP women’s group is planning a private dinner Wednesday in Lafayette featuring political speeches and a luxury that the most famous speaker on the lineup, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, will likely appreciate: Face masks are “optional,” according to a flyer.
Yet masks are not optional inside commercial venues such as the Petroleum Club, the event venue set to host the event sponsored by Fleur de Lis Republican Women. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ month-old mask order compels businesses to require face coverings, except for those with certain medical conditions.
Nor are masks optional under Petroleum Club procedures, according to its general manager, Matt Soileau. People can remove masks to eat, which is allowed in Edwards’ order, but must have them on at all other times, Soileau said. Soileau said staff would “absolutely” intervene if people do not comply.
“We would calmly just let everybody know that is involved, we might need to tell some people they have to leave,” Soileau said. “We will give them some kind of ultimatum.”
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Higgins has criticized Edwards’ order, and previously told a CNN reporter that mask wearing is “part of the dehumanization of the children of God.” He has since softened that rhetoric with a July 30 Facebook post, in which he said he wears masks in elevators and grocery stores to be respectful. Higgins also said he would comply with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mask requirement for the House floor.
“‘Mask’ is not the hill to die on. Freedom is the hill to die on. Fighting for your freedoms in Congress is more important than my freedom to wear or not wear a mask,” Higgins wrote.
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Higgins did not respond to a query concerning the Wednesday Fleur de Lis event.
The Fleur de Lis President Donna Pelletier said masks are required to enter the Petroleum Club building, as well as the meeting room. But people are free to do as they please after that, she said.
“Once you get in there, you can take the silly thing off,” Pelletier said. “It’s still a free country. You still have the option to decide for yourself.”
That means no mask required while mingling, walking around, going to the bathroom or at any other time after entering, Pelletier said. She said she is following the Petroleum Club’s rules, as communicated to her by venue staff. That discussion was limited to what is required of people when entering, she said.
“I didn’t ask if you have to put your mask on to walk to the bathroom. That didn’t come up in the discussion,” Pelletier said. “(Petroleum Club staff) just simply said we are required to follow the guidelines, and that you have to have a mask to enter the building and you have to have a mask on to get to the meeting room.”
Edwards’ spokesperson, Christina Stephens, said any interpretation that the mask mandate only applies when patrons enter businesses “would make no sense whatsoever.”
“This isn’t a gray area. You can take your mask off to eat or drink or if you are a person giving a speech, but the bottom line is that when people are gathering inside of a commercial establishment for an event, they cannot simply remove the face mask when they get inside,” Stephens said in an email.
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Soileau said he is not aware of the discussion Pelletier claims to have had with staff, but that her portrayal of it does not represent Petroleum Club’s operations. Other groups that regularly meet at the Petroleum Club, as well as wedding parties, have not had any problems complying with mask rules.
“It’s not coming from our staff, that you can kind of be willy nilly and do what you want. I wish that would be cleared up, because that’s frustrating to hear,” Soileau said.
The event is sold out with 100 tickets ordered at $25 apiece, Pelletier said, although there were two cancellations on Tuesday. Soileau said the Petroleum Club has a restaurant license, making it eligible to operate at 50% capacity without adhering to the 50-person cap on indoor events. He said meeting rooms have been rearranged to allow for more space between people.
Also scheduled to speak at the Fleur de Lis event is State Treasurer John Schroder, whose spokesperson did not answer directly when asked if he intends to wear a mask.
“Since he will be delivering a speech, he is not required to wear a face mask,” spokesperson Michelle Millhollon said in an email.
While it is true that speakers are not required to wear masks when speaking, Millhollon did not respond to a follow-up question as to whether he would do so when not speaking.
Two other speakers — Michele Billeaud and Ricky LaFleur, who are running for judgeships in the 15th Judicial District — both plan to wear masks when not speaking.
Pelletier said her group takes the coronavirus seriously, especially because several members have been infected with it. Some of them are currently in the hospital, she said.
“We are not taking this lightly,” Pelletier said. “We are not being flippant about it.”
Staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.