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Patrons come and go from Firehouse BBQ on LA-16 during lunchtime, Tuesday, August 11, 2020, in Livingston Parish.

In late July, an inspector from the Louisiana Department of Health went to check on a BBQ restaurant near Denham Springs after getting a cluster of public complaints about employees and customers not wearing masks.

She noted tables in the restaurant weren't spaced far enough, and the owner told state agents some employees had medical conditions preventing them from wearing masks, while others wore them electively, according to the agent's July 27 report.

When asked to make the necessary changes, the owner refused, the report says.

The state Health Department revoked the restaurant’s food permit a day later and ordered it to close. A few days later, a district judge likewise ordered the restaurant to shut down.

Still, the restaurant stayed open, serving large lines of customers who walked past a sign on the front door explaining that masks were optional inside.

That led to the state filing a lawsuit against Firehouse BBQ, which sits in a strip mall along La. 16 next to a vacant storefront and an insurance office in Watson.

Now more than a month has passed and the case, as well as the state's ability to enforce Louisiana’s mask mandate, are at a standstill — bogged down in court procedures and delays despite arguments the restaurant endangers the public’s health by not requiring workers and customers to cover their faces.

Firehouse, meanwhile, is shielded from state enforcement until a court hearing on the matter, and has continued operating “business as usual,” owner Eunice Danielle Bunch has said. She's argued the state’s mask mandate is illegal and unfair because businesses become the enforcers of the state’s rules.

The case was delayed again last week after the judge in the case, state District Judge Brian K. Abels, allowed lawyers to get an opinion from a higher court whether the case should be heard in Baton Rouge, the seat of state government, or in Livingston Parish.

The stakes surrounding the lawsuit could be huge.

A victory for the Department of Health would further solidify that Gov. John Bel Edwards has the authority to issue temporary orders like mandatory face coverings and other social distancing measures during a public health emergency.

LSU law professor Edward Richards said businesses not following social distancing rules may also face potential liability, including higher worker compensation premiums and health care benefit bills, if workers get sick.

Potential customers may also choose not to go there.

"Maybe they'll have their hardcore mask-resister clientele, but in reality, some people will get sick," Richards said. "The virus may have the last word on how some of these cases play out."

A win for Firehouse could also lead to a cascade of legal challenges by other businesses that could chip away at the state’s ability to enforce the emergency declaration.

Nationwide, mask mandates have become a political flashpoint, but enforcing the rules has proven difficult.

Many local governments, including Livingston Parish and other Louisiana municipalities, say they won’t ask local law enforcement to enforce the governor’s mask-wearing mandate.

Instead, businesses in Louisiana are required to enforce the rules themselves and bear the brunt of any penalties if they don’t follow them, as well as the ire of customers who refuse to wear them. In some instances, enforcing state and private social distancing requirements have turned violent.

Last month, a teenager working at a Baton Rouge Chili's was bloodied when a group of people attacked her after she was unable to seat them together due to the company’s social-distancing policy.

For Bunch, Firehouse’s owner, the risks of challenging the state are also large.

When she continued to stay open, lawyers for the health department asked a judge to hold her in contempt of court for violating a court order to close, a violation that carries fines and jail time.

The Health Department, if successful in its legal fight, could also fine the business for violating the mask order.

Bunch said she's not afraid, adding after a court hearing Tuesday that she decided to not enforce masks after some of her employees reported having heart palpitations, anxiety and trouble breathing because of the masks.

Bunch said she would rather be honest with customers about her decision to not allow masks and avoid any potential confrontations.

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“This is how we roll here,” Bunch said.

She's argued the governor’s mask mandate is illegal, going as far as to post handwritten signs of their arguments just above a stern notice the Health Department put up ordering the eatery to close.

The action taken against Firehouse BBQ marked the first time the Edwards administration penalized a restaurant for violating the emergency order, though his office has taken on bars in recent months.

State and federal leaders, as well as numerous health experts, say face-coverings are vital tools to allowing parts of the economy to stay open and to avoid reverting to stay-at-home orders if coronavirus cases surge and overwhelm hospitals.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry penned a scathing opinion of Edwards' mask order in July — the same week the state’s top lawyer was in self-isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus — arguing face-covering requirements are an overreach of the governor’s authority.

Landry filed a lengthy brief backing Firehouse and its owner. The brief also assesses how the mandate allows people to exempt themselves and doesn’t ask business owners to ask whether someone has an exemption, such as a medical condition.

"This case is not about whether masks or face coverings are a good idea,” Landry wrote in his brief.

Richards, the LSU professor, said the laws surrounding the governor and Health Department’s ability to enact restrictions during an emergency are murky.

“The AG may raise some good points, but it’s pretty political,” Richards said, adding that at times Landry makes a few valid points about inconsistencies in the governor’s power.

Richards added he believes the governor’s office was hoping for better cooperation among businesses to follow the mandates, but parts of the mask order created more uncertainty by exempting the mask rules for medical conditions without also requiring some type of certification.

“He’s basically created a scenario where everyone can go in and say they have a health condition,” Richards said.

Bunch and her lawyer have expressed worries about potentially violating health care privacy laws if they ask whether an unmasked customer or worker has a medical exemption.

In July, when Edward issued a mandate requiring face-coverings for most indoor areas, he allowed exemptions for children under age 8 and people unable to wear them due to medical conditions, among a few others.

Health experts have said there's only a narrow list of medical conditions preventing people from covering their faces, and in those cases those people would be at very high risk for severe complications from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19.

A greater worry state officials have expressed is if people gather in areas inside where they can't physically distance, contract the virus and then unknowingly spread it to others in the community.

Livingston Parish has had some 3,500 coronavirus cases since the outbreak accelerated in Louisiana in March, leading to 66 deaths, according to state figures as of Friday.

Numerous public health officials, including those at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say many people can spread the virus through respiratory droplets from coughing, talking and even breathing before they develop symptoms, if any at all.

Last month, the governor called the restaurant’s actions “reckless” and “irresponsible,” adding that Louisiana at the time had the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the country.

“We have gone above and beyond to give this owner every opportunity to get in compliance with the order as our intent has always been to work with businesses,” the governor said.

State lawyers plan to point to recent court wins that have bolstered the state’s argument the governor can legally enact a mask mandate, as well as a trove of medical evidence on masks and their effectiveness at stemming the virus's spread.

A state district judge in Baton Rouge last month affirmed the governor’s statewide mask mandate and bar restrictions were legal and enforceable, rejecting claims from Jefferson Parish businesses that Edwards overstepped his legal authority.

Last month, two federal judges also deemed the governor’s order constitutional in similar lawsuits filed by bar owners after the governor ordered them to shut down following rapid growth in coronavirus cases linked to bars.

A U.S. district judge in Baton Rouge and a federal Court of Appeals judge also tossed a lawsuit filed by Tony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Pastor who was cited a half-dozen times for violating the governor’s emergency order when he held packed services at his Central church.

The Pentecostal preacher has also publicly backed Firehouse’s legal fight against the state.

With the case against Firehouse in limbo as lawyers figure out where a hearing should be held, Bunch said she plans to stay open in the meantime.

"We hit a nerve with the community about the mask mandate," Bunch said, adding that business has picked up since the restaurant started publicizing it won’t require masks. "It wasn't my intention, but that's where it's led to. We've had great support."

Email Youssef Rddad at, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad