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A Little Rock steakhouse took issue Tuesday with allegations in a federal lawsuit filed last week over a June 27 brawl inside the restaurant between two groups of patrons: a couple wearing masks and a bus load of people from Louisiana who weren't wearing masks.

The lawsuit accused the west Little Rock restaurant of negligently allowing guests to go without masks and ignoring social distancing requirements despite restrictions intended to protect against the coronavirus pandemic. The business called the lawsuit a frivolous attempt by "the assailant and his counsel ... to extort a $2 million payment from Saltgrass."

"Saltgrass Steakhouse is a family oriented restaurant which serves hundreds of thousands of customers at 87 restaurants nationwide," according to a statement emailed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by a restaurant spokeswoman, Katelyn Roche Gosslee.

"Our doors are open to customers of all races, ethnicities and national origins," the statement said, an apparent reference to the lawsuit's other claim of racial discrimination.

The plaintiffs, Shayla Hooks and her boyfriend, Tyrone Jackson, who are both Black, said they were seated at the bar when a busload of white people from Louisiana entered, at least some of them not wearing face coverings, and got too close to them. The couple alleges that when they objected, restaurant employees "placated the group" by leaving the patrons to resolve the matter on their own.

The lawsuit alleges that Hooks was harassed in the restroom by some women who had gotten off the bus. A bystander who wasn't connected with either party started filming the increasingly acrimonious encounter between the groups, using his cellphone, when Hooks, after returning from the restroom, sat back down at the bar and began screaming at someone to "stay six feet away from me!" The video showed a woman trying to get closer to Hooks and a man inching closer to Jackson, with another man, possibly an employee, stepping between the groups and holding his arms up in an effort to keep them apart.

Jackson, who was standing at the bar, can then be seen turning around and swinging a bottle at the man who was close to him. A melee erupted as other customers moved out of the way. Several people, possibly employees, stepped in to break up the fight.

The lawsuit alleged that Hooks and Jackson "lived in an agitated state of fear and anxiety" for seven days, until they tested negative for the coronavirus.

The restaurant asserted that "an assailant started a fight in our restaurant which began and ended with his violent acts, endangering numerous employees and innocent bystanders."

The statement complained that "the assailant" and his attorney "are conducting a media campaign to publicize the fight as an act of racial injustice caused by our family friendly restaurant."

"Saltgrass had no role in this unfortunate incident," the statement said. "Saltgrass Steakhouse supports the movement to end racial injustice and denounces intolerant and violent behavior of any kind in its restaurants."

It added, "Saltgrass will not compensate these individuals for a fight that began and ended with their violent acts."

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