Gov. Edwards calls actions of defiant Denham Springs restaurant ‘extremely reckless’


Submitted/The Livingston Parish News

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – Gov. John Bel Edwards called the recent actions of a Denham Springs restaurant, which has stayed open despite having its food permit revoked for failing its COVID-19 inspection, “extremely reckless” and “irresponsible” during a press conference on Tuesday.

Firehouse BBQ, located at 33875 LA Hwy. 16, has remained in operation even after the Louisiana Department of Health pulled its food permit on Friday. According to officials, the restaurant violated rules requiring customers and employees to wear masks and follow the social distancing guidelines.

Last week, the Bunch family, owners of Firehouse BBQ, announced via social media that they will not comply “with the illegal mandate” and are conducting “business as usual.”

The owners also encouraged people to “show your support” by patronizing the restaurant “to help us pay for the lawyer that will be fighting for your rights and ours as citizens.”

Speaking to reporters after announcing his plans to extend Phase Two of reopening the state, Edwards described the restaurant’s defiance as “reckless” as well as “unlawful.” He also said there will be “additional actions” in the future.

“Any restaurant or other retail establishment that is operating in a similar fashion is being extremely reckless and irresponsible,” Edwards said. “There is no doubt they are contributing to the spread of the virus in a way that is unacceptable.”

A message from The News to Firehouse BBQ seeking comment to Edwards’ remarks was not answered.

On Friday, Firehouse BBQ was served with a notice that ownership was to close their establishment “immediately.” The statement was issued as an emergency order from the Louisiana Department of Health.

According to the July 27 business inspection, obtained through a public records request, Firehouse BBQ was docked for tables not being spaced appropriately and employees not wearing face masks.

In the report, the inspector noted that the owner said “some employees have medical conditions that prevent them from [wearing] a face covering and others wear them electively.”

In a July 23 post pinned at the top of Firehouse BBQ’s Facebook page, the owners said “the use of masks for extended periods of time during shifts by our employees has caused several medical reactions that are negatively impacting their ability to perform their positions.”

“Since rebreathing their own carbon dioxide over a period of time can and has led to symptoms such as migraines and anxiety attacks and other medical conditions, we are no longer requiring our employees to wear the masks,” the post read.

In the same post, the owners said customers and employees are given the option to wear a mask or not.

“It is not mandated in our store,” the post said. “If you have concerns about your health, feel free to call for curbside service and a gloved and temporarily masked employee will deliver the food to your vehicle.”

Despite losing its food permit, Firehouse BBQ has been plenty busy from what owners called an “overwhelming outpouring of support” that has resulted in “record sales.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, the owners said customers came from “St. Francisville, Mandeville, and even as far as Boutte, Lafayette, and Alabama.”

One of those customers was Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central and a vocal critic of the governor’s handling of COVID-19.

Spell clashed with state officials early in the coronavirus shutdown because he continued to have in-person church services. Eventually, Spell was arrested for trying to back into a protester with a bus and eventually reduced the size of the congregation to match state guidelines.

In the Facebook post Monday, the owners said Rep. Valarie Hodges and Rep. Daniel McCormick — who have both supported rescinding Edwards’ emergency declaration — have vocally expressed support for the restaurant. The Bunch family added that they’ve received “calls of encouragement” from across the country as far as Utah and Alaska.

The restaurant said it will start a GoFundMe to take in money for legal expenses.

“We truly feel y’all have our backs,” Firehouse BBQ said in its Facebook post.

Since March, Edwards has imposed various restrictions on businesses to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has surpassed 124,000 cases and 3,900 deaths in Louisiana as of Tuesday.

Those restrictions have included closing all businesses deemed “non-essential” when the state was under a stay-at-home order; allowing businesses to operate at 25-percent capacity in Phase One; and allowing businesses to operate at 50-percent capacity under Phase Two.

In all phases, employees dealing directly with the public have been required to wear face masks, which is separate from the governor’s statewide mask mandate issued in mid-July.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Edwards encouraged business owners to comply with the mitigation measures, saying legal immunity “is not available if you don’t follow CDC guidelines.”

“It’s self-defeating for businesses who want to enjoy that immunity to engage their business in a reckless manner,” Edwards said. “In addition to being reckless, it’s unlawful. We encourage everyone to follow these mitigation measures that have been mandated in a way that is fully consistent with the authority I have under the constitution.”

By: David Gray

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