Louisiana AG says mask mandate ‘likely unconstitutional and unenforceable’

Published 2:41 pm Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is currently quarantining after testing positive for the coronavirus, issued a legal opinion Wednesday saying the governor’s statewide mask mandate and bar restrictions to combat the outbreak appear to violate Louisiana’s constitution.

The Republican attorney general’s office said Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order, in effect since Monday, requiring most people to wear face coverings, limiting bars to takeout and delivery and banning gatherings of more than 50 people in indoor spaces is “likely unconstitutional and unenforceable.”

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“Although the mask mandate and the 50-person limit may be good recommendations for personal safety, they may not be enforced with financial or criminal penalties,” Landry wrote. “Both businesses acting under color of law as mask police and actual police acting as mask police could face liability if individual civil rights are violated due to the proclamation.”

Landry’s legal assessment doesn’t carry the force of law, but the advisory opinion could be used as the basis for a lawsuit if someone wants to challenge the regulations enacted by Edwards. A group of eight Republican lawmakers asked for Landry’s assessment.

The attorney general’s opinion comes a day after Vice President Mike Pence, in a visit to Louisiana, complimented Edwards’ response to the coronavirus pandemic and suggested residents should comply with the statewide mask mandate and other Edwards regulations.

“We support Gov. John Bel Edwards and his health officials’ decisions, and we encourage people to heed the guidance of state and local authorities,” Pence said. “And with regard to wearing a mask, it’s just always a good idea.”

Edwards initially resisted a statewide mask order, preferring to call for individual responsibility. But he changed his mind as Louisiana’s confirmed coronavirus caseload continued to surge, returning to one of the fastest growing infection rates per capita across the nation. Hospitalization numbers are spiking, and the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive has dramatically increased.

That is worrying public health experts in a state that previously seemed to be successfully flattening the curve of infections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the wearing of masks to help slow the virus’s spread.

Landry’s office requires its employees to wear a facial covering in public areas. About half of the nation’s states, including neighboring Texas, have issued statewide mask orders. Alabama joined the list Wednesday.

Still, masks have become a national flashpoint in the fight to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, with people arguing community responsibility clashing with those arguing individual freedom. Several conservative Louisiana Republican lawmakers have panned Edwards’ mask mandate as an assault on their liberty, despite the health risks to those around them.

The governor is requiring face coverings for anyone aged 8 or older when they are inside a building or business or if they are outside in close proximity to people who are not members of their household. The mandate allows exceptions for people with medical conditions, anyone eating and drinking and people speaking to an audience.

Three parishes have low enough rates of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus that their governing authorities can choose to opt out of the mask requirement.

Landry issued the opinion while he is isolated because of his own coronavirus infection. Landry was tested because he had planned to attend the Pence events. His spokesman Millard Mule said while the attorney general is in quarantine, he has no symptoms of COVID-19.

Landry has consistently sparred with Edwards across the two terms both men have been in office. But in the early days of the state’s virus outbreak, Landry stood with Edwards to support the governor’s decisions to close schools, shutter some businesses and limit gatherings. More recently, however, Landry has publicly questioned Edwards’ continued restrictions on businesses.

The attorney general also sent a letter to Louisiana’s education leaders opposing a face covering requirement at schools, saying it “may cross the line on liberty.” Despite Landry’s letter, the state education board Tuesday night passed new coronavirus restrictions that included a face covering requirement for all adults and students in grades 3 through 12.

More than 3,300 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state health department. Louisiana has been adding anywhere from 1,300 to 2,600 new confirmed cases daily, with nearly 2,100 more infections confirmed Wednesday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.