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

The state Health Department's month-long effort to shut down a Livingston Parish barbecue joint that’s bucked efforts to control the novel coronavirus hit another snag Tuesday when a state judge questioned whether he should hear any case challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency declaration.

District Judge Brian K. Abels said he was willing to take up the case, but he warned lawyers that any decision he made could be overturned if a higher court determined it should have been heard in Baton Rouge, the seat of state government.

The owner of Firehouse BBQ in Watson won't make employees and customers wear masks, in violation of an Edwards order put in place to control Louisiana’s portion of a worldwide pandemic. For a time, the restaurant also left its tables too close together, another violation.

Amid Abels' hesitance, lawyers for the Health Department and the governor's office on Tuesday asked the judge to let a higher court weigh in first whether Livingston is the proper venue. Abels gave the state 10 days to get an opinion from an appeals court or the state Supreme Court on whether he can hear the lawsuit.

Until then, the Watson restaurant can remain open if it likes. Abels left in place his earlier injunction preventing the state from taking any action against it.

Every court case challenging Edwards’ emergency declaration has ended in the governor’s favor.

State health officials have already pulled Firehouse’s restaurant permit in an effort to close it, and say the restaurant is endangering the public's health by not requiring mask use among patrons.

Matthew Block, the lead lawyer for the state, expressed worries the state may lose the progress it has made blunting the spread of new coronavirus cases since imposing a mask order in July and ordering bars to close.

The state’s worries have increased with thousands of residents displaced by Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana — a hotspot for coronavirus cases — as well as students returning to schools and colleges.

"Following the governor's order is based on good science, it's based on public health experts," Block said. "Masks are not to protect you, masks are to protect everyone from you."

Livingston Parish has had 3,405 coronavirus cases since the pandemic accelerated in Louisiana in March, and 66 people have died.

From the bench, Abels warned the public that, regardless of where they stand on mask-wearing, people still need to be vigilant against the virus.

"This virus doesn't have political views," Abels said. “It's seeking hosts and it'll find them regardless of race, religion, political views, and sexual orientation.”

The Louisiana Department of Health sued Firehouse last month, saying inspectors had discovered in July that employees and customers weren't wearing masks and tables weren't properly spaced out — conditions Edwards imposed on restaurants to help stem the pandemic.

The agency pulled the restaurant’s food license, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order directing Firehouse BBQ to close its doors if it wouldn't comply with state regulators.

Firehouse defied the state's action by remaining open, prompting the state to seek a contempt-of-court order that could have included fines and jail time. Abels in turn issued a temporary order blocking the state from taking action against the restaurant, pending a hearing that still hasn’t been held more than a month since the initial state inspection.

Lawyers for the Health Department argue Firehouse hadn't demonstrated how it would suffer because of the mask mandate and noted that Edwards' order has not been found unconstitutional in any state or federal court.

Firehouse owner Eunice Danielle Bunch has called the governor’s mask mandate "illegal” and posted handwritten signs disputing the rules about an inch above the health department’s shutdown notice.

She said some of her employees had adverse medical reactions to covering their faces, including heart palpitations, anxiety and difficulties breathing. Edwards has said that if people aren’t able to wear masks in public, they perhaps shouldn’t be leaving their homes at all.

In August, Edwards called out the restaurant for being “extremely reckless and irresponsible” and said during a news conference “there’s no doubt they’re contributing to the spread of the virus.”

Jeff Wittenbrink, the lawyer representing the restaurant, said federal health privacy laws prevent employers from asking customers and workers to disclose health conditions, and the governor’s order makes exceptions for people who can’t wear masks due to medical conditions.

By openly telling employees and customers aren’t required to cover their faces, Bunch said it leaves it up to people whether they want to eat there or not.

"If you have a jeopardized immune system, maybe you don't want to come,” she said. “It's your choice, but I want you to understand what we're doing here."

The Health Department’s actions marked the first time a state agency moved to close a restaurant for not following Edwards' emergency order. They argue the restaurant is causing irreparable harm to public health.

Edwards’ administration previously took action on bars after ordering them to close, a move that was challenged in federal court by bar owners in the New Orleans and Houma areas and prompted a similar federal lawsuit in Acadiana.

The outcomes of those cases bolstered the state’s position that it can enforce public health mandates after both judges ruled the governor's bar-closure order was constitutional.

Attorney General Jeff Landry has said the restaurant has the right to not obey the governor’s order. However, neither Landry's opinion nor any court filings supporting Firehouse carry the force of law but can be presented in court.

Numerous public health experts have stressed the importance of face coverings, saying they limit the spread of viral droplets from the wearer to others. Since an unknown number of people can contract the virus before developing symptoms, if any at all, face-coverings are vital to prevent people from unknowingly spreading the virus.

Mask-wearing and social distancing practices have helped lower the number of new cases in Louisiana, according to statistics cited by the state.

"We've made a lot of progress, and we're worried we're going to lose all of that progress," Block said. "We have to be vigilant about it."


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad