LIVINGSTON PARISH, La. (WAFB) - Just hours after the owner of Firehouse BBQ in Livingston Parish was slapped with a temporary restraining order by the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office for going against Governor John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate, she spoke with WAFB for an exclusive interview.
Danielle Bunch has worked at the place for a while now, but took over for the previous owner back at the start of June.
She says this is not her being defiant, and she has followed all the laws and sanitary code regulations.
However, Bunch says she’s not requiring masks in her restaurant to protect some of her employees who allegedly cannot wear masks because of health conditions, which she says is part of governor’s mandate.
“Being that [the mask mandate] not constitutional, I don’t feel like I’m truly violating anything by moving forward and doing what I was doing before, which is serving my customers, keeping things sanitary, and moving forward,” said Bunch.
Bunch, like many restaurant owners, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and regulations put in place to try to stop the spread of the virus.
“We fully respect the fact that there is a pandemic going on. We respect the fact that people need to sanitize and keep their distance, and we’ve done so in our store. As soon as we were told that the mandate was not 6 feet, but 10 feet for tables, we immediately removed tables the next day and got that all taken care of. We’ve had tape on the floor for people to space themselves. We’ve never gotten near capacity that is eligible for the mandate. We sanitize after everything, we check everybody’s temperature, so we are respectful of the fact that there are things that need to be done and precautions that need to be taken,” said Bunch.
But as for the mask mandate, Bunch felt like she needed to push back.
“I also saw a liability as a business owner to try to police people coming in my door, asking them about medical situations that they may or may not have. If they’re eligible to wear the mask or not, I didn’t want to get sued. So in general, especially after reading the attorney general’s opinion about the mandate, I decided that it was in our best interest to not mandate the masks. Now, that does not mean people did not have the option; they had the option to wear the mask. I wanted to give them the opportunity to not wear it. More importantly, the reason that I put it on the door and on Facebook was to make sure that all customers were aware fully of what we’re doing inside our doors, that way if they had a jeopardized health situation, they had the ability to make the choice of whether or not to enter,” said Bunch.
Bunch’s business has remained open and extremely busy with customers after defying the governor’s executive order requiring businesses to comply with his mask mandate.
On Monday, the governor’s office filed a temporary restraining order, which was delivered to the restaurant’s attorney.
“There are several different defenses that we’ve raised. Under the order itself, customers are not required to wear a mask when they are eating or drinking, so they’re sitting at their table, they have their food and drink. They also aren’t required to wear the mask when they’re socially distanced. Well, if they come in the store, they’re standing in line, they’re standing on the marks, they’re socially distanced appropriately, so therefore, they are exempt from wearing the masks. So it’s really a big tempest over what basically is Mrs. Danielle trying to protect her employees, but above and beyond all that, you know this governor really doesn’t have the authority, even under the statute from which he has authority, to do the things that he’s doing,” said Jeff Wittenbrink, Bunch’s attorney.
“So it’s unfortunate that it had to come up this way, but eventually, this issue was going to come up with someone, somehow, somewhere. If it has to be me, I’m okay with that. We will keep moving forward,” said Bunch.
Bunch says she plans on keeping the doors to the restaurant open.
Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard issued a statement and appears to be doing his best to distance himself from the situation. He says his legal duty as sheriff requires him to serve all orders directed to his office.
A spokesperson with the governor’s office says “at this point, the owners are defying a court order and it now becomes an issue that the court will have to take up.”
The case will go before Judge Brian Abels in Livingston Parish on Aug. 18.
The owner has started a page to help raise money for her legal fees.
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