Lines of people, many without masks, queued up at a bustling Livingston Parish barbecue restaurant Monday, just days after the state revoked the eatery’s food permit for violating rules requiring customers and employees to wear masks and follow the coronavirus social distancing guidelines. 

During a recent inspection, Louisiana Department of Health agents found tables weren’t spaced properly at the Firehouse BBQ in Denham Springs and customers and employees weren't wearing masks. State officials said the owner of the restaurant refused to make any changes, prompting the health department on Friday to revoke the business's food permit.

Nevertheless, the restaurant on Monday continued to seat diners.

“The illegal mask mandate has been attempted to be enforced upon our store by harming the income of the business and employees without a hearing,” a hand-written sign read on the door, a few inches from a July 31 health department document ordering the business to close.

Around noon Monday, dozens of customers had lined up inside the eatery located between an insurance office and an empty store off La. 16.

The Rev. Tony Spell — who was charged this spring on violating the governor’s order limiting crowd sizes by holding large services at his Central church — also had lunch at the barbecue joint. He said he came to support the owner’s challenge against the state and to buy everything could from them. 

Spell called the state’s crackdown on the restaurant “tyrannical” and argued the mandates are unconstitutional.

“It never was about safety,” Spell said. “It was about taking away our freedoms.”

The Pentecostal preacher was charged in March with six counts of violating the governor’s emergency order after he held several large services that exceeded crowd limits in place at the time. Spell’s legal troubles also mounted when a protester in front of his church accused the pastor of attempting to back into him with a bus, leading to an assault charge that also is pending in East Baton Rouge district court. 

Despite some diners claiming the mask mandate is an infringement on their rights, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a wide range of health experts have stressed the importance of facial coverings to limit the spread of viral droplets from the wearer to others.

“Masks are effective,” said Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig, who specializes in infectious diseases. “With so many people that don’t know they’re possibly infected, we all need to wear masks, period.” 

The White House Coronavirus Task Force has also said widespread mask usage is one of the few ways to keep states from again having to issue stay-at-home orders.

After their lunch at Firehouse, Greg Oliphant, 38, of Albany, and his 20-year-old daughter, Aly Politz, said getting accurate public health information is difficult because they feel it’s become politicized.

They said it should be up to each individual to decide whether to wear a mask and for businesses to decide whether to require them, but customers should abide whichever rules businesses impose. 

“If a mask makes you feel safer, it’s completely fine to wear one,” Politz said. “But I don’t think the state should be enforcing it, especially on businesses.”

Removing the restaurant's food permit marked the first serious enforcement action Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has taken against a restaurant.

The Health Department said it plans to wait on any legal action against the business until a judge in Lafayette rules in a separate lawsuit brought by bar owners challenging the governor’s order that required their businesses shut down.

Firehouse owner Eunice Danielle Bunch, who runs the business under the name God’s Table, LLC, has said in social media posts that some of her employees had adverse medical reactions to wearing masks and she would allow customers to decide whether to wear them.

They said they were not available for an interview Monday afternoon. 

Edwards' administration has so far hesitated to penalize businesses that violate the mandates, but in recent weeks the administration has flexed the state’s regulatory muscle.

Last week, the state Fire Marshal ordered four bars to close after finding they were allowing large crowds or on-site consumption.

Enforcement came after the governor mandated bars to end in-person consumption last month when he modified his executive order to include closing bars and requiring masks in much of the state.

Editor’s Note: Due to incorrect information in legal documents filed by the Department of Health, a previous version of this story gave the wrong name of the owner of Firehouse BBQ. The owner is Eunice Danielle Bunch.


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