BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – Gov. John Bel Edwards said he has “the legal authority” to issue a statewide mask mandate amid the coronavirus pandemic, a statement that came in response to an advisory opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry saying the governor’s latest order “does not pass the constitutional test.”
Edwards responded to Landry’s advisory opinion during his 52nd monthly statewide call-in radio show, “Ask the Governor,” via 89.3 WRKF in Baton Rouge.
Speaking to listeners, the governor said his actions are “warranted by the circumstances” and backed by federal leaders such as Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator of the task force.
Both Pence and Birx publicly voiced their support for Edwards’ actions during their visit to Louisiana on Tuesday.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that what we did was not just warranted by the circumstances… it’s clearly under the legal authority I have,” Edwards said.
In a nine-page advisory opinion released earlier Wednesday, Landry said the three main provisions of Edwards’ latest proclamation — a statewide mask mandate, the effective closing of bars, and a 50-person social gathering limit — are “likely unconstitutional and unenforceable.”
Landry, who was unable to attend Pence’s visit to Louisiana after confirming he had contracted the coronavirus, also said business owners and law enforcement acting as “mask police” could face liability if individual civil rights are violated due to the proclamation.
“Although the mask mandate and 50-person limit may be good recommendations for personal safety, they may not be enforced with financial or criminal penalties,” Landry wrote.
Landry has criticized previous mitigation measures, such as church limitations and bans on live music. He recently wrote a letter to the state education board arguing that masks should not be required in schools.
In his letter, Landry said that he did not want to “discredit or reduce the significance of any protections taken by an individual, including the wearing of a face mask for the purpose of preventing infection of COVID-19.”
However, he argued against their constitutional validity and urged law enforcement and business owners to “exercise extreme caution” when trying to enforce face masks.
“After careful consideration, it is my opinion as the chief legal officer of the State that the order does not pass the constitutional test,” Landry said.
“It is unfortunate that, despite the fact that I am the statutory legal advisor to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness… I was not consulted prior to the issuance of any executive order during COVID-19, including the most recent Proclamation.”
Edwards’ statewide mask mandate went into effect on Monday, requiring people ages 8 and older to wear masks, closing bars to on-site consumption but allowing curbside service, and limiting indoor and outdoor social gatherings to 50 people or less. The governor cited the recent rise in cases and hospitalizations as the need for the additional mitigation measures.
Since June 23, the state has reported 33,892 new COVID-19 cases off of 383,136 tests, which equates to a positivity rate of 8.8 percent. As of Wednesday, COVID-19 hospitalizations were at 1,369 statewide while ventilator usage was at 149, both more than double in less than a month.
Last week, Louisiana had 243 new cases per 100,000 people, more than double the national average of 119 new cases per 100,000 people. After dropping to as low as No. 10 in the nation in cases per capita, Louisiana has crept back up to No. 3 behind only New York and New Jersey.
Edwards’ newest order is in effect until at least July 24, the day Phase Two of reopening the state is currently set to expire.
Near the end of his radio appearance Wednesday, the governor’s office released a statement that called Landry’s opinion “politically motivated.”
In his statement, Edwards recalled Landry’s stance in mid-March “when he stood with me and said extraordinary measures were necessary to protect the people of our state during this COVID-19 crisis, encouraged Louisianans to follow my directives and said he was united with me in protecting the health and safety of the people of our state.”
He also cited remarks from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, specifically Birx, who called Edwards’ actions, including the mask mandate, as a “best practice” for states with rising cases.
“If ever there were a time to put politics aside to govern, it is now when we are in the middle of a public health crisis that affects all Louisianans regardless of their beliefs or political affiliation,” Edwards said in his statement.
David Gray | The News