A Livingston Parish barbecue restaurant defied a judge's order by opening its doors to diners Tuesday, setting up a showdown with Health Department officials who say the business needs to close if it won't comply with state mandates intended to battle a life-threatening pandemic.

At the state's request, a judge last week issued a temporary restraining order directing the Firehouse BBQ to close its doors if it wouldn't comply with the state's effort to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus. The local sheriff delivered the order Monday, but the restaurant opened again Tuesday.

Health Department officials now want District Judge Brenda Bedsole Ricks to hold the restaurant's owner in contempt of court.

“It is apparent that the defendants have willfully disobeyed the TRO issued by this honorable court and plan to continue to disobey it,” the Health Department's lawyers wrote in court documents Tuesday. They argue the restaurant's owner is threatening the public welfare.

If the court sides with the Health Department, the owner of God's Table LLC could face fines and jail time. 

No contempt order was issued by the end of business hours Tuesday, though a judge could make a finding or call for a hearing at any time. The court could also take up the matter during a previously scheduled hearing next week when lawyers for the restaurant can make arguments.

State inspectors recently found that the restaurant’s employees weren’t wearing masks and tables weren’t spaced out to establish social distancing. After the restaurant's owner refused to comply, the Health Department revoked the business' food permit and asked the court to shut it down when it still wouldn't close.

While the formal notice wasn’t delivered to the Firehouse  until Monday, lawyers for the health department say the owner should have been aware of the ruling following widely publicized media reports.

The health department’s actions marked the first time a state agency moved to close a restaurant for not following Gov. John Bel Edwards' emergency order. The state had previously taken on bars.

The restaurant's owner has said she believes the mask mandate is illegal and that some of her employees had adverse medical reactions to covering their faces.

An LSU legal expert says the restaurant is in a precarious position because of the judge's order barring it from operating. Not only is the business defying state permit rules, its defiance of a court order could lead to steep fines and potentially jail time.

“It’s reckless and silly,” said LSU law professor Ken Levy. “If they’re wanting to make a point, there are different, more promising ways, to make a point than going to jail.”

The state’s lawsuit asked the court to enforce the governor’s emergency order, arguing the eatery caused "irreparable harm to the public health" by not following rules put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Statistics cited by the state suggest that wearing masks and social distancing, under an order Edwards issued last month, is helping to reduce the number of new cases in Louisiana.

Edwards last week called Firehouse’s decision to continue serving customers “extremely reckless” and “irresponsible,” adding that the Health Department had given the owner opportunities to fall in line with his requirements.

The restaurant is owned by Eunice Danielle Bunch through God's Table, LLC, and she posted a hand-written sign to the restaurant’s windows calling the mask requirement an "illegal mask mandate." Just inches away from the sign was the Health Department notice directing the restaurant to close.

Jeff Wittenbrink, the restaurant's lawyer, said Tuesday he plans to argue the restraining order should be cancelled and aims to seek a restraining order against the state’s enforcement efforts.

While pointing to a recent opinion by state Attorney General Jeff Landry opinion blasting the governor's mask mandate, Wittenbrink added that the state’s emergency order is unenforceable because employers can’t ask workers to disclose their medical conditions if they can’t wear masks. 

“It’s a crazy order,” Wittenbrink said. “You can literally wear a piece of gauze that would satisfy the mandate."

Levy criticized the attorney general’s opinion, which was released last month when the state’s top lawyer was self-isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus, saying it wasn't based on science and the law.

“Firehouse’s position, like Landry’s, is untenable,” he said. “They will continue to lose in court. And given their inexcusable refusal to prioritize their employees' and customers' health, they deserve to remain shut down."

Wittenbrink was also among the lawyers defending Life Tabernacle Church and pastor Tony Spell in their fight last spring to keep a Central church open to a degree that exceeded temporary state limits on the size of gatherings. Most churches in the state complied with Edwards' order limiting in-person worship.

Spell, a Pentecostal preacher, was also among the vocal supporters of Firehouse, saying last week after eating lunch that the governor’s order is “tyrannical.” 

Following the Health Department’s action, the restaurant has drawn long lines of diners, many of whom weren’t wearing face coverings, including on Tuesday.

Numerous public health experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have stressed the importance of facial coverings to limit the spread of viral droplets from the wearer to others.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force has also said the widespread use of masks is one way to keep cases from surging and avoiding states from having to revert to stay-at-home orders. In recent weeks, the task force has also recommended Louisiana mandate masks, close bars and limit gatherings and indoor dining, which would go beyond limits Edwards has imposed.

A range of health experts and the governor say there's only a short list of conditions that would prevent a person from wearing one safely. They say people with those conditions would likely need supplemental oxygen and would be at such a high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus, that they shouldn't go out at all.

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