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Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during a press conference at the Louisiana State Capitol, Tuesday, August 4, 2020, on the status in the fight against coronavirus in Louisiana.

As Gov. John Bel Edwards extended the state’s existing coronavirus restrictions for another three weeks, a Baton Rouge judge on Thursday upheld his regulations closing bars, mandating masks and limiting gatherings, ruling the limits are within his power as governor.

The decision by 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark ensured the state’s coronavirus restrictions will remain in place, at least until two other federal lawsuits are heard in the next two weeks.

Edwards’ order extending the restrictions comes as the state’s cases, hospitalizations and other metrics show signs of improvement. Still, the state is still reporting high numbers of cases and nowhere near the precipitous drop in cases seen in April after the governor put a stay-at-home order in place. The governor on Thursday called the improvements “modest” but said they were necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

With the new order, Edwards also revoked the ability for parishes to opt out of the statewide mask mandate if they meet a certain threshold for incidence of the virus. None currently meet the threshold to opt out, but the change will prevent local authorities from ending the mandate in their parishes if the amount of virus circulating across the state continues to drop. 

“This is not the last legal challenge that has been put in place but i’m confident that I’m doing what is necessary, that we’re following the science, that we’re following the data,” Edwards said, adding he’s “obligated” to put those restrictions in place to protect residents.

Clark said Edwards can exercise power to “limit the loss of life,” saying while businesses will certainly suffer, the government should provide more aid to prop up the private sector. She rejected arguments by four Jefferson Parish business owners that the governor was unfairly targeting bars and people who rely on large gatherings, like musicians, with his regulations.

“We’re in need of the eradication of this dreadful dreadful pathogen that has besieged this nation, and left unabated will turn this nation asunder,” Clark said. She added the state needs to “get a hold” of the virus.

The plaintiffs in the suit were Jefferson Parish business owners Justin Molaison, an attorney and musician; Jennifer Labella Tusa, owner of catering and events business the Crossing; Natasha Cvitanovich, owner of Moby’s Bar and Grill; and Ronald Dalleo, owner of Cleary Tavern.

Molaison, who was also an attorney in the case, argued the governor’s order unfairly targeted bars and people who rely on gatherings, like musicians. The order he was challenging was issued in July and closed bars to in-person consumption, limited indoor gatherings to 50 or less and mandated masks statewide.

Relying in part on Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s opinion that the governor’s restrictions are inappropriate, Molaison said he believed the regulations are unconstitutional and showed a “particular bias” against bar owners, relying on shoddy contact tracing data to support the decision.

“It saddens me that we’re seeing the end of a small business,” Molaison said. “And this unfortunately is the first step. These businesses are gasping for their last breath.”

Molaison said he hadn’t made a decision about whether to appeal the ruling.

But the Edwards administration relied on a litany of health data presented by Dr. Alex Billioux, the governor’s top public health official, in backing up his regulations. Billioux and a host of other public health experts--as well as the White House Coronavirus Task Force--have advised the governor to close bars, mandate masks and take other steps to tackle what had been an alarming rise in cases.

James Garner, a private attorney representing Edwards, cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld coronavirus-related restrictions in California, where Chief Justice John Roberts agreed the judiciary should largely defer to elected officials’ judgement during a pandemic.

“The governor’s decisions aren’t just rational, they’re wise,” Garner said. “Things are bad, but they’re getting better. What the governor has done is saved lives and stopped more people from getting sick.”

The ruling represents a win for the governor as he prepares for hearings in two other lawsuits brought by bar owners in other parts of the state in federal court. Jimmy Faircloth, a former top lawyer to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, is representing bar owners in those suits, whose hearings are slated for the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control has ruled in the case of four establishments that had their alcohol permits pulled for violating coronavirus rules.

One Grand Isle bar was ordered to temporarily shut down for violating coronavirus restrictions and another Jefferson Parish establishment was fined but allowed to reopen on probation during a hearing before the ATC on Thursday.

Sand Dollar Tiki Bar was fined $1,000 and told it must shut down for most of the rest of the month after officials cited the business for a large party with live music and alcohol at a pavilion at the bar. Wo-De's, which was accused of allowing a crowd to gather in violation of restrictions, entered into a consent agreement with the office and was allowed to reopen with a $250 fine.

Dr. Gina LaGarde, the state’s regional medical director for the northshore area, joined Edwards at a press conference Thursday to implore people who claim to have a constitutional right not to wear a mask in public to do so anyways so they can protect others. LaGarde said her cousin, a 63-year-old New Orleans resident, contracted the virus a week after Louisiana confirmed its first case. She died in early April, LaGarde said.

“When I hear people say it is my right not to wear a mask, it is my right to congregate in large groups, what about my right to live?” LaGarde said. “Wearing a mask might have saved my cousin.”

Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com