Louisiana attorney general says mask mandate likely illegal

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has issued a legal opinion saying the governor’s statewide mask mandate and bar restrictions to combat the coronavirus outbreak appear to violate Louisiana’s constitution

The Republican attorney general's office said Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' order 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.”

“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 Edwards' regulations. A group of eight Republican lawmakers asked for Landry's assessment.

Edwards defended the order, in effect since Monday.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that what we did is not just warranted by the circumstances we face with COVID-19, it's required. And it’s clearly within the legal authority that I have," Edwards, a lawyer, said on his monthly radio show.

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

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.

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.

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's isolated because of his own coronavirus infection. He 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 COVID-19 symptoms.

Landry has consistently sparred with Edwards across their two terms 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.

The attorney general also sent a letter to Louisiana’s education leaders opposing a face covering requirement at schools. Despite the 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 between 1,300 and 2,600 new confirmed cases daily, with nearly 2,100 more infections announced 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.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.