HUNTINGTON — A Hurricane, West Virginia, restaurant has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to find the state’s mask mandate and “stay at home” order unconstitutional and unenforceable.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia by Andrew and Ashley Stewart, owners of Dinner’s Ready Inc., doing business as the Bridge Cafe & Bistro, against Gov. Jim Justice, the Putnam County Commission and Putnam County sanitarian Rick Snaman.
The Stewarts argue they had been harassed by the government following social media posts this summer speaking out against Justice’s mask mandate, which was implemented due to COVID-19.
The lawsuit accuses the defendants of violating First Amendment rights to protected and free speech. It also states their 14th Amendment right to due process was violated. It ultimately argues executive orders in West Virginia — such as the many handed down during the COVID-19 pandemic — are not enforceable.
On March 16, Justice issued the stay-at-home order, which caused nonessential businesses to close. After being closed for weeks to deter the spread of the virus, dine-in restaurants were allowed to open May 21. Justice’s mandate requiring face masks or coverings went into effect July 7, requiring anyone age 9 or older to wear masks while inside buildings where social distancing was not possible.
Bridge Cafe & Bistro was thrust into the spotlight July 8 after its social media post stating its employees and customers would not be required to follow that mandate went viral after it was shared many times. The restaurant changed its mind, however, after listening to social media responses and the Putnam County Department of Health and to Snaman.
The complaint states that the reversal came after Snaman informed them that as the “result of the expression and speech contained in their Facebook post, they would be shut down by the Putnam County Department of Heath” for failing to comply with the governor’s mask mandate.
While the plaintiffs requested written documentation of any law or regulation they were violating, they were not given any and instead directed to the governor’s website.
Snaman inspected the restaurant July 10, and the plaintiffs decided to comply with the mask mandate so they could continue to operate. They were charged $50 for the follow-up inspection. Snaman returned July 14 for another inspection, which also cost $50, in what the plaintiffs said was a continuation of his retaliation against them for their social media post.
The lawsuit states the plaintiffs have continued to comply, despite their “strongly felt” beliefs against them.
The plaintiffs request declaratory and injunctive relief declaring the state’s guidelines for restaurants and the “stay at home” order as unconstitutional. They also ask the judge to prohibit enforcement of the orders by the commission or any other state and local officials.
Monetary damage, attorney fees and other relief is also requested.
Attorney John H. Bryan represents the plaintiffs.