Lawsuit filed by restaurants challenging COVID-19 restrictions shot down by judge

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A lawsuit filed by more than 40 restaurants is challenging St. Louis County’s right to impose COVID-19 emergency orders that restrict their operations.

A lawsuit filed by two downtown St. Louis bars, on the other hand, refutes the city’s right to sanction businesses that violate its COVID-19 emergency measures.

Both suits were filed in St. Louis County Associate Circuit with the restauranteurs’ challenge to the county’s COVID-19 measures awaiting Associate Circuit Judge John Lasater’s purview, and the lawsuit filed by Wheelhouse and The Start Bar assigned to Associate Circuit Judge Christopher McGraugh.

On Monday, McGraugh ruled the two bars must comply with the two-week shutdown order the city imposed Nov. 16 on both for violating COVID-19 restrictions.

McGraugh said Wheelhouse and The Start Bar presented no evidence they have been irreparably harmed by the city’s social distancing and face mask requirements and must remain closed through Nov. 30 in accordance with the city’s order.

“The court finds that the enforcement of these orders is in the public's interest,” McGraugh wrote in his decision.

Wheelhouse and The Start Bar also unsuccessfully sued St. Louis in July after the city ordered both shut down for two weeks.

In July, videos on an account linked to the Wheelhouse showed crowds inside the bar ignoring social distancing standards and mask mandates. A local TV news station captured video of a nightclub atmosphere with a DJ playing music above a packed dance floor.

On July 27, the city ordered four bars, including Wheelhouse and The Start Bar, closed for two weeks for violating public health orders.

The two bars sued to get the closure order repealed, but St. Louis County Judge Elizabeth Hogan rejected their request for a temporary restraining order, ruling the city’s orders were legal.

That was essentially the same ruling issued by McGraugh on Monday, rejecting essentially the same suit from the same two bars which were levied the same penalties after violating the same rules again by the city earlier this month.

Wheelhouse and Start Bar were served letters ordering them to shut down on Nov. 16 through Nov. 30.

In a statement posted to Wheelhouse’s Instagram page, the owner said his business was issued a two-week closure notice by city Health Director Fredrick Echols “without due process and any correspondence except the notice ordering a shutdown.”

Had Wheelhouse the opportunity to contest the photo evidence supporting the shutdown, “it would have given us the opportunity to show that his evidence was inaccurate, so much so that multiple photos weren’t even of Wheelhouse or Start Bar,” the post said.

After “multiple attempts to reach out to” city officials “as their constituents to explain our side,” Wheelhouse and The Start Bar filed their suit.

“The last thing we want to do is file a lawsuit against the city we have love so much, but we owe it to our staff, our customers and everyone who has supported us to stand up,⁣” the post said.

In his Monday ruling that enforcing the city’s orders are “in the public interest,” McGraugh said the bars “presented no evidence that would support a finding that immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage will result in the absence of relief. The sole support in the record for such a finding are conclusory statements.”

In a Friday ruling, Lasater allowed a lawsuit challenging St. Louis County’s right to impose COVID-19 emergency orders on restaurants and bars to proceed, but shot down a requested restraining order to lift the restrictions.

That suit was filed by more than 40 St. Louis-area restaurants and the 1,000-member Missouri Restaurant Association (MRA).





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