Coronavirus file photo stock of nurse

In this March 13, 2020, file photo, a nurse at a drive-up coronavirus testing station wears a face shield and other protective gear as she waits by a tent in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Louisiana has taken its first serious enforcement action on a restaurant for violating Gov. John Bel Edwards' coronavirus rules regarding masks, revoking the food permit of a defiant Denham Springs BBQ restaurant after its owner refused to require masks for employees or customers. 

Health Department spokeswoman Aly Neel said the agency revoked the food permit for Firehouse BBQ after repeated efforts to get the business to comply with mask and social distancing rules in recent days. 

LDH sent a sanitarian to inspect the restaurant after the state received multiple complaints. After handing the owner a report -- which included violations of masking for employees and customers, as well as tables not spaced out properly -- the owner refused to make changes. 

A copy of the order delivered by the Health Department shows the restaurant is owned by Eunice and Danielle Bunch through God's Table, LLC. When reached by phone Saturday, an employee of the restaurant declined to comment or connect a reporter with the owner. 

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In a Facebook post pinned to the restaurant's profile, the owner writes that masks are not required, and claims that they have "caused several medical reactions" to employees.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and a wide range of health experts have urged the public to wear masks to limit the spread of viral droplets from the wearer to others. And the White House Coronavirus Task Force has recently said widespread mask usage is one of the few ways to prevent more stay-at-home orders. 

In another Facebook post on Saturday, the business wrote that "despite the attempted enforcement of an illegal mandate, we are conducting business as usual," with an image of a cartoon character and the words "yes, we're open." The post encouraged patrons to "show your support" by patronizing the restaurant to help pay for an attorney "that will be fighting for your rights and ours as citizens." 

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The move represents the first time the Edwards administration has taken serious action against a restaurant in violation of coronavirus rules, which require businesses to have employees and customers wear masks. 

Edwards' administration has taken a lax approach to enforcing its restrictions so far, hesitating to penalize businesses.

Instead, the fire marshal and Health Department have given businesses several opportunities to comply, operating on a "three-strike" rule.

Neel said the Health Department would wait to take legal action against the business until after a judge rules in a separate lawsuit brought by several bars in the Acadiana region against coronavirus rules that effectively shut them down.

The state Fire Marshal and Edwards' administration ordered four bars to close last week after discovering they were allowing large crowds or on-site consumption. Bars have been closed to in-person consumption since earlier in July, when Edwards modified his Phase 2 executive order and shuttered bars and required masks statewide when people are out in public. 

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Firehouse is located in Denham Springs, a Republican stronghold represented in the state House by Rep. Valarie Hodges, who has backed efforts to end coronavirus restrictions. 

Firehouse wrote on Facebook that "customers and employees are given the option to wear a mask or not. It is not mandated in our store. As we have been for a while, we are open to dining in customers." 

Staff writer Jackie DeRobertis contributed to this story. 


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com