NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge on Friday closely questioned a Louisiana state health official about data the state used in a decision to close bars — but not restaurants that contain bars — amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ten southeastern Louisiana bar owners are challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards’ July closure order in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said at the end of Friday’s online hearing that he will rule “as soon as is reasonably possible.”
Jimmy Faircloth, attorney for the bar owners, contends that they were denied their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law. While questioning state assistant health secretary Dr. Alex Billioux, the hearing’s lone witness, Faircloth suggested the decision to close bars, without closing restaurants that contain bars, was based on contact tracing data that was unclear.
It was a key issue for Feldman. “Does the data show that bar patrons are more contagious than bar-restaurant patrons?” he asked Billioux at one point. “I have to decide whether the governor screwed up.”
“The individuals themselves are probably equally infectious as individuals,” Billioux said. “The question is the social activity that they’re engaged in, which does have a different level of infectiousness.”
People going to businesses primarily engaged in serving food are more likely to stay at a table with people from their group and are less likely to spread disease, Billioux said. Bar patrons are more likely to move about the establishment, mixing with different people over a matter of hours and often drinking and talking without masks, he said, noting reports from other states and South Korea.
Billioux acknowledged that contact tracing data showing that an infected person had been to a bar didn’t always make clear whether the bar was within a restaurant. However, under questioning from an administration attorney, he noted that state guidance calls for restaurants to use their bar areas for seating and serving food and not for social gatherings.
“He wanted to be the least restrictive as possible,” Billioux said of Edwards. “Thus, allowing these businesses to remain open if they would operate in a safer frame, in this case as restaurants, not as bars.”
Bar owners want Feldman to block the governor and the state fire marshal from enforcing the emergency closure order. The businesses challenging the order are in Houma, Slidell and Marrero, areas outside of New Orleans, which has imposed even stronger restrictions than the state.
A similar lawsuit by bar owners in western Louisiana is set for a hearing Monday in Lafayette.
Earlier Friday, Louisiana health officials reported nearly 1,300 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 28 more deaths related to the disease, bringing the state death toll to 4,307.
But hospitalizations continue to go down, dropping by 38 to 1,243. And of the more than 136,700 people confirmed to have had COVID-19 infections, 103,512 have recovered. State statistics also show a decline in recent weeks in the percentage of positive results among all tests given.
Billioux said the case numbers are still high and some areas of the state are hard-pressed to provide needed care, but he noted that the overall numbers are improving. He told Feldman he believes infections will rise and further threaten the health care system if the restrictions are removed.