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Appeals court rules for Edwards in lawsuit over bar closures

(The Center Square) – Another court has ruled in Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ favor in a lawsuit challenging his use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit turned back an appeal from 21 bar owners who challenged an executive order Edwards issued in July that closed barrooms for on-premise service but allowed restaurants to remain open. The bar owners argued the differential treatment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Fifth Circuit agreed Wednesday with two district courts that treating bars and restaurants differently was constitutional because closing bars was “rationally related to the goal of protecting public health.” In reaching that conclusion, the courts relied heavily on the testimony of Dr. Alex Billioux, the former head of the Louisiana Office of Public Health.

Billioux said patrons go to bars to socialize and often have to lean in close to each other to converse over loud music. As they become intoxicated, they are less likely to maintain their distance from each other and to wear masks, he said.

Bar patrons tend to be younger adults who are more likely than older people to not develop symptoms if they are infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, potentially spreading the illness to others without realizing they are contagious, Billioux said. The White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended closing bars, and statewide contact tracing links a “significant percentage” of COVID-19 cases to bars, state officials said.

By contrast, according to Billioux and Edwards, the “risk of spreading the virus is not as pronounced in a restaurant, where couples, families, or small groups sit by themselves, socially distant from others eating at the restaurant.”

The Fifth District decision marked the ninth time a court has ruled in favor of the governor’s orders, Edwards’ office said.

“None of the decisions I have made for the past 10 months have been easy, especially when it comes to limiting businesses, and I am pleased that another court has upheld what I have always said: that these orders are completely constitutional, legal and necessary to protect public health,” Edwards said in a prepared statement.

David Jacobs, Staff Reporter for the Center Square, 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.