FILE - Craft brewery, beer, bar

(The Center Square) – Eleven bar owners have sued Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards seeking to block enforcement of his order closing bars to help control the spread of COVID-19.

The bar owners say there is no evidence that their establishments are linked to any coronavirus infections and that closing an entire class of businesses is unfair and illegal. Edwards said information gathered by public health experts worldwide indicates bars can’t operate safely where COVID-19 is widespread, as it is in Louisiana.

The bar owners, mostly from southwest Louisiana’s Acadiana region, filed suit in Lafayette. Their attorney, Jimmy Faircloth, who was former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel, said businesses in the Baton Rouge area are considering a similar lawsuit.

Three Jefferson Parish business owners have filed suit to overturn the governor’s most recent executive order, which also mandates mask usage across the state and limited crowd sizes along with closing bars.

“While there is no doubt that the Governor may enact and enforce policies and executive orders to counteract a pandemic in the name of public health and safety, the orders at issue go too far on too little,” Faircloth writes in a request for a temporary restraining order filed Thursday. “There is simply no basis in science or other reliable evidence to support the targeted closure of a single industry under these circumstances.”

The Lafayette plaintiffs say the governor cannot show a “real or substantial relation” between closing their bars and the public health crisis. Of the roughly 100,000 confirmed total cases as of July 23 when the order was last extended, 454 had been traced to bars and about 100 had been traced to the Tigerland area of Baton Rouge where none of the plaintiffs do business, they say.

The plaintiffs say threatened enforcement of the executive order violates the due process, equal protection and takings clauses of both the state and U.S. Constitution. They are suing the governor and state Fire Marshall Butch Browning, who is responsible for enforcement. Both are being sued in their official capacities as state officials.

Along with preventing enforcement, they are seeking payment either for damages for the deprivation of their rights or compensation for the taking of their property under the governor’s authority to confiscate private property during an emergency declaration.

“There are some environments, some venues, that are so conducive to the spread of the coronavirus that they really cannot be run safely, and barrooms are one of those,” Edwards said Thursday. “We’ve seen this from data from all over the world.”

When deciding on restrictions to control the virus, state officials typically lean heavily on federal guidance. Dr. Deborah Birx with the White House coronavirus task force says closing bars is a best practice to control the spread in states with a high incidence of COVID cases, Edwards noted. Louisiana has more confirmed cases per capita than any other state.

He acknowledged the economic harm caused by closing businesses and stressed that it was not an easy decision, but said closing bars along with other mitigation methods will help the state avoid moving backwards toward stricter restrictions or a “stay-at-home” order.

“We have a public health emergency,” Edwards said. “I believe at the end of the day, the court will fully understand that not only do I have the authority under the constitution and the laws of the United States to do what I’ve done, but what I’ve done is absolutely essential.”

State officials mostly have been lenient in their enforcement of the governor’s executive orders, giving business owners multiple chances to get into compliance. The state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control this week announced 30-day suspensions of bar licenses pending hearings for four businesses for “excessive and/or repeated non-compliance with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency order aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.