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Dr. Alex Billioux MD, assistant secretary for Louisiana Department of Health's Office of Public Health, speaks during a press conference at the Louisiana State Capitol, Tuesday, August 4, 2020, on the status in the fight against coronavirus in Louisiana.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration on Wednesday sought to beat back challenges to coronavirus restrictions that shuttered bars and limited social gatherings, tapping medical experts to testify the regulations were necessary during a hearing in a lawsuit brought by Jefferson Parish business owners.

The lawyers and health officials representing the governor argued the rules, which mandate masks statewide and limit business capacity, are based on sound medical advice and helped tamp down cases after an alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations.

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The business owners challenging the order argued that Edwards was unfairly punishing bars and people whose occupations rely on in-person events, like musicians, with the rules that have been extended until at least August 28th.

“I definitely feel like I’m being discriminated against,” said Ronald Dalleo, the owner of Cleary Tavern in Metairie, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “You cannot lump everyone in together because of the results of a few.”

Dr. Rani Whitfield, a well-known Baton Rouge physician called as an expert witness, said the governor’s restrictions are helping keep cases from soaring uncontrollably.

“He was following the science,” Whitfield said. “These recommendations are coming from the CDC ...That’s all we have to follow.”

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Whitfield added that if the restrictions were lifted, “we would probably see a lot more people die.”

19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark, of Baton Rouge, set the hearing to resume at 10 a.m. Thursday after testimony stretched into the evening. 

The hearing comes as Edwards prepares to defend itself in court in two separate federal lawsuits in the coming week, and as the state alcohol regulator conducts hearings on four bars that have violated his order. The Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control reinstated two of the bars’ alcohol licenses Wednesday after they agreed to pay a fine and follow the rules.

Edwards’ attorneys cited, among other case law, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that held California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive action limiting attendance at churches to 25% capacity didn’t violate the First Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the court’s liberal justices in that case, argued that courts should not second-guess government officials making decisions amid a highly-uncertain pandemic.

The lawsuit heard Wednesday was filed by four Jefferson Parish business owners: Justin Molaison, an attorney and musician who plays at live events; Jennifer Labella Tusa, who owns a catering and events business called The Crossing in Kenner; Natasha Cvitanovich, who owns Moby's Bar and Grill in Metairie; and Dalleo. Molaison is also a lawyer on the case, along with Stephen Petit of Harahan.

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One of the plaintiffs tested positive for the virus this week and couldn’t attend, Petit said.

The lawsuit seeks to declare the governor’s entire executive order null in its entirety and to block enforcement of the restrictions.

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Gov. Edwards’ administration, represented by a host of attorneys, was backed by two medical experts, including the state’s top public health official, Dr. Alex Billioux, who testified his decision to shutter bars, mandate masks and limit gatherings was necessary to help slow the spread of the virus.

Billioux delved into excruciating detail describing how the Health Department keeps track of the virus’s spread and reports to the governor, taking the stand for several hours. Ultimately, he said the restrictions at issue have worked. Cases and hospitalizations have started to come down, something Billioux said he expected if the governor mandated masks and put other restrictions in place.

“We are seeing the numbers go in the right direction,” he said.

Louisiana has recently started to see a flattening of cases after a spike in cases and hospitalizations that alarmed public health experts. Edwards and the White House Coronavirus Task Force – which recommended the bar closure, mask mandate and even more restrictive rules on gatherings and indoor dining – both attributed the improvement to the new restrictions, implemented last month.

The business owners challenging the mandates cited an advisory opinion issued by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry that blasted Edwards’ mask mandate, bar closure and gathering limit. After siding with the governor early on in the pandemic, Landry has since returned to a familiar position on the opposite side of the Democratic governor.

Landry issued the opinion, which is not legally binding, at the request of some of the more conservative members of the state Legislature who have criticized the restrictions on businesses, calling for restrictions to be lifted.

Molaison, the attorney and musician suing the governor, said he wants all businesses to be able to operate under “the same rules.”

“I want the governor to not arbitrarily set a limit,” he said.

Billioux said when he and other health experts started to see cases spike in June, he was worried “we were having less control of COVID-19.” Government and other health experts provided the governor with a “deep dive” into the numbers and relied on several resources when crafting the guidance, he said, including the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

That task force, which sends reports to Louisiana weekly, indicated Sunday that the state should keep bars closed and continue to limit gatherings to 50 people and mandate masks.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com