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

A Livingston Parish judge Tuesday delayed a hearing on whether the state can enforce its coronavirus mask mandate against a Watson restaurant, in effect letting the barbecue joint stay open if it wants to.

While 21st Judicial District Judge Brian K. Abels didn't say Firehouse BBQ could remain open, his earlier order preventing the Louisiana Department of Health from taking action against the restaurant will remain in effect another two weeks.

A hearing had been set for Tuesday but the judge rescheduled it for Sept. 1 so he can hold a longer court session. He expects to receive a brief from Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in support of the restaurant and against Gov. John Bel Edwards' mask mandate.

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

Health officials pulled the eatery's food license, and a parish judge later issued a temporary restraining order directing Firehouse BBQ to close its doors if it wouldn't comply with state regulators.

After Firehouse defied the state's action, the state sought a contempt-of-court order that could have included fines and jail time. Judge Abels in turn issued a temporary order blocking the state from taking action against the restaurant, pending a hearing.

In a court filing Tuesday, lawyers for the Health Department said 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 posted a hand-written sign to the restaurant’s windows, just above the health department’s shutdown notice, calling the mask requirement an "illegal mask mandate."

She has said some of her employees had adverse medical reactions to covering their faces. Edwards has suggested that if people aren't capable of wearing masks, they shouldn't be out in public because they would presumed to be at a higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

The Health Department’s actions marked the first time a state agency moved to close a restaurant for not following Edwards' emergency order, arguing 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, as well as in a separate state lawsuit in Acadiana.

The legal fight in U.S. District Court in New Orleans bolstered the state’s position that it can enforce public health mandates; a federal judge ruled the governor's bar-closure order was constitutional. The case in state court remains pending.

Pointing to an opinion by Landry criticizing the governor's mask mandate, Firehouse’s lawyer said the state’s emergency order is not enforceable because employers can’t ask workers to disclose their medical conditions needed to exempt them from wearing masks.

The federal judge presiding over the lawsuit filed by bars said in his order Monday that Landry's opinion doesn't carry the force of law.

A wide range of public health experts have stressed the importance of face coverings, saying they limit the spread of viral droplets from the wearer to others. It’s especially important, they say, because an unknown number of people can contract the virus and unknowingly spread it before they develop symptoms, if any at all.

Statistics cited by the state suggest mask-wearing and social distancing practices have helped lower the number of new cases in Louisiana.

Cases over the past week have dropped by nearly half compared to a month ago when bars shut down and Edwards mandated masks in most places. Though testing has declined slightly recently, the early summer surge in cases also led to a rising death toll.


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