Louisiana House advances measures to suspend enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions

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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards holds up his own mask, taken off while he was speaking, to remind Louisiana residents that a highly effective thing within their power to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to simply wear a mask, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, at a press conference update on the state’s COVID-19 situation at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge, La. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Center Square/The Livingston Parish News) – The Louisiana House of Representatives on Monday voted to suspend the State Fire Marshall’s ability to enforce restrictions imposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

House Concurrent Resolution 13 by Rep. Blake Miguez, who chairs his chamber’s Republican delegation, is one of several GOP-backed proposals to curb Edwards’ power to implement or enforce coronavirus mitigation rules, or to end the restrictions altogether.

Louisiana is currently in Phase 3 of the White House-approved restrictions meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Under the order, many businesses are limited to 75 percent of their usual capacity, barrooms in many parts of the state are closed to on-premise service, and face coverings are required in public spaces.

The State Fire Marshall’s Office is responsible for enforcing those restrictions. HCR 13 would suspend those enforcement powers until the middle of next year, 60 days after the end of the regular session. Concurrent resolutions go into effect with a majority vote of the state House and Senate and do not require the governor’s signature.

Miguez said state officials and residents have “flattened the curve” of COVID-19 infections, so the restrictions no longer are necessary. He also said Edwards, a Democrat, has exceeded his proper emergency authority by, for example, instituting a mask mandate when no statute gives him the right to do so.

He said government’s proper role is to educate the public on how they can protect public health, not to dictate what people should do.

“Individuals are responsible for their own public health,” Miguez said.

Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, a Metairie Republican, said the Fire Marshal has worked to help businesses comply with the rules and has not shut anyone down. Other lawmakers said the restrictions helped Louisiana get the pandemic under control and worried about what will happen if the rules are lifted or watered down.

Similar measures target the enforcement powers of the state health department and the office of alcohol and tobacco control. The House Judiciary Committee on Monday advanced House Concurrent Resolution 8 that seeks to suspend the ATC office’s ability to enforce COVID-19 restrictions.

Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel, said that while legislators have the ability to suspend the statute granting the ATC its enforcement powers, they don’t have the ability to amend their powers as it relates to one area.

“A law is either suspended or it’s not,” Block said.

But Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican, says the fact that the constitution does not explicitly say the legislature can’t partially suspend a law means they can. The committee advanced the resolution with an 8-4 vote.

The measure now moves to the state Senate.

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