Black couple sues over social distancing fight at steakhouse

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Black couple who got into a fight with white customers at a Little Rock steakhouse who weren’t wearing masks and stood too close filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing the restaurant of discrimination and not enforcing coronavirus safety rules.

The federal lawsuit stems from a June 27 fight at the Saltgrass Steakhouse that was caught on cellphone video and widely shared on social media. Shayla Hooks and Tyrone Jackson accuse the restaurant of negligence, racial discrimination and defamation over its handling of the confrontation.

The lawsuit says the couple was sitting in the restaurant’s bar area when a group of white people from a Louisiana tour bus entered and asked if they could sit close to them, despite social distancing restrictions. Arkansas allows bars and restaurants to open but with capacity limits and distancing rules.

The lawsuit says the restaurant’s staff didn’t intervene as the customers harassed and intentionally stood near the couple when Jackson said he didn’t want them sitting nearby because of COVID-19. The lawsuit says some of the white customers intentionally coughed on Hooks and that one punched her in the face during the ensuing fight, giving her a black eye.

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“What that manager was making my clients do was choose between aggression and possible violence on the one hand, and their own personal health and safety on the other,” Mike Laux, an attorney for the couple, said.

Landry’s Inc., the steakhouse chain’s parent company, called the lawsuit frivolous and cited videos that it said show Jackson hitting people at the beginning and the end of the brawl.

“Saltgrass Steakhouse supports the movement to end racial injustice and denounces intolerant and violent behavior of any kind in its restaurants,” the company said in a statement. “Saltgrass will not compensate these individuals for a fight that began and ended with their violent acts.”

Little Rock police responded to the fight in June, but did not make any arrests. The state Department of Health and Alcohol Beverage Control said the restaurant has not been issued any citations over compliance with virus safety rules.

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