Are Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions canceled? Governor, AG disagree on GOP petition

A day after Louisiana Republican lawmakers sent the governor a petition to cancel all virus restrictions – from the mask mandate to rules requiring social distancing at bars and restaurants – the governor showed no indication he would play along and end his emergency proclamation.

A long-running feud between Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards reignited Saturday, with Landry saying the petition makes the termination process “effective immediately.”

The battle between the Democratic governor and top Republican officials left the status of Louisiana’s virus restrictions murky. It also heightened the likelihood the issue will go to court, which Edwards said was possible.

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The law at issue, an obscure statute passed in 2003 during the SARS pandemic and never before used, says the Legislature, “in consultation with the public health authority,” can terminate a state of public health emergency at any time by a petition signed by a majority of either the House or Senate.

Sixty-five of 68 House Republicans signed a petition to terminate the emergency Friday, on the last day of a special legislative session aimed largely at curbing Edwards’ restrictions on things like high school football games. That exceeds the 53 signatures needed for a majority. The petition prevents the governor from issuing another emergency order – which encompasses his coronavirus rules – for seven days.

But the law also says “thereupon, the governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of public health or emergency.”

It is not clear what Edwards intends to do, if anything. He railed against the petition in an impassioned press conference Friday, calling it “reckless” and “unconscionable.” And he has insisted the Phase 3 restrictions are still in place.

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“If there was ever a time to rise above partisan politics it is during a public health emergency,” Edwards said Friday afternoon. “I would think that’s what the people of Louisiana expect. I know damn well it’s what they deserve.”

But Edwards hasn’t spoken since receiving the petition about whether he intends to go to court to defend his restrictions or simply ignore the petition. His spokeswoman declined to comment Saturday.

Landry, in a statement, said the termination of Edwards’ emergency powers doesn’t require anything other than the signed petition. House Republicans consulted Landry on the legal issues in the petition process when crafting it.

“The termination process is effective immediately, unless provided otherwise in the petition, when a petition is signed by a majority of the surviving members within either body of the Legislature, the Senate or the House,” Landry said. “The termination of emergency powers does not require any additional action other than the signed petition. Upon completion of the signed petition, the Governor is directed to issue a proclamation informing the public of the termination.”

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Landry and Edwards have battled consistently, over a range of issues, since both men were elected to their posts in 2015. Both were re-elected in 2019, though Landry waded into the governor’s race to attack Edwards repeatedly. And Landry joined forces with U.S. Sen. John Kennedy to raise and spend money on electing more conservative lawmakers to the state Legislature, which proved effective.

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The petition idea has long circulated on the fringes of the House Republican delegation, but GOP leaders have refused to get behind it over concerns about its constitutionality and its impact on federal funds. However, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, changed his position and revived the petition as the special session wound to a close this week, getting nearly the entire GOP delegation on board. The only three Republicans who didn’t sign were Reps. Barbara Freiberg, of Baton Rouge; Stephanie Hilferty, of New Orleans; and Joe Stagni, of Kenner.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has repeatedly said he thinks the idea is unconstitutional. He told reporters Friday he expects the issue to be resolved in court.

Landry also blasted the governor on Twitter Friday morning, saying Edwards has “no confidence in the people he serves” and that Louisiana residents “have the right to make their own choices about their lives.”

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“Government may have the obligation to educate, but not to dictate.”

Edwards’ executive counsel, Matthew Block, responded that the emergency order prohibits price gouging on things like personal protective equipment and therapeutics. He noted Landry’s office is tasked with enforcing price gouging during the pandemic and said that would go away if the emergency was ended.

“Is our chief legal officer suggesting this should be eliminated?” Block wrote. “We should just educate it is wrong? Not dictate?”

The animus between Edwards and Landry did recede briefly early on in the pandemic, when Landry joined the governor for a press conference to tell people the governor’s executive orders instituting restrictions were constitutional.

But that didn’t last long, and Landry has since issued advisory opinions slamming the governor, and even waded into court battles against the governor’s restrictions.

Louisiana is in Phase 3 of the coronavirus restrictions, which mandates masks and restricts occupancy at most businesses to 75%. Bars are allowed to open in some parishes that have better coronavirus trends if they maintain stricter rules. The governor also allowed high school football stadiums to welcome more fans – up to 50%, from 25% – at the request of Republican legislative leaders. Landry had also sent a letter demanding the governor expand high school football seating, a topic that Cortez said animated much of the legislative backlash against the governor.

The state’s restrictions are backed by the White House and many public health experts in Louisiana, including hospital leaders who have expressed concern about facilities being overwhelmed this flu season – even with restrictions in place.

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