MISSION TOWNSHIP — Protesters held signs stating “End the shutdown,” “Put me back to work” and more Saturday, Dec. 12, as motorists passed Mission Tavern, off Crow Wing County Highway 3 near Merrifield.

A protest was a last minute decision for the owners of Mission Tavern to let people know where they stand and to deliver a message to Gov. Tim Walz and any other official — they are not going to back down gently. They want to be open for business.

The protest comes the day after the business owner said several complaints about them serving customers indoors Friday night prompted the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office to issue the business a copy of Walz’s executive order issued Nov. 18. Jeff McCulloch, owner of Mission Tavern, said he was assuming the Minnesota Department of Health would stop by, but as of late Saturday, it was unknown whether any state officials showed up.

Walz issued the order closing bars and restaurants for indoor service for four weeks starting Nov. 20 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus — the second such order. Walz initially planned to make a statement on whether he would extend the order Friday, Dec. 11, but then announced he would make a decision this coming week.

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About 30 people stood along the county highway beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday. Several vehicles driving by honked their horns while they passed the protest. One person held a sign asking people to honk their horn if they supported the business.

Kevin McCulloch hands out slices of pizza to people in a truck as Jeff McCulloch holds up a sign announcing free pizza along the County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Kevin McCulloch hands out slices of pizza to people in a truck as Jeff McCulloch holds up a sign announcing free pizza along the County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Jeff McCulloch along with his brother Kevin McCulloch, who manages the kitchen, stood along the highway waving at motorists while holding signs stating “Free Pizza” and “Re Open Minnesota Now.”

As the brothers were along the county highway, their father Charlie McCulloch was busy making pizza, which the restaurant offered free to people during the protest.

Charlie McCulloch said it was about 11:30 a.m. when he called his son Jeff to tell him about the idea for the protest. He said they considered shutting down the road at first, but they chose not to because they didn’t want to be like protesters in the Twin Cities metro area. They also didn’t want to cause any disruptions with the neighbors and didn’t want anyone to get hurt, so they decided to do a peaceful protest in the parking lot and along the highway for a few hours.

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Jeff McCulloch came up with the idea to give away pizza all while bringing some attention to Walz’s executive order to close bars and restaurants for four weeks and how it is hurting the businesses.

“If we can’t serve them inside, we’ll serve them outside,” Jeff McCulloch said. He said their customers have been supportive of them.

“We’re just trying to run a business and we don’t need any help from anyone else,” he said.

Kevin McCulloch said you can’t run a business with takeout alone.

“You lose money every day when you can’t be open,” he said.

Kevin McCulloch talked about his concern with the state allowing the big box retail stores to be open, while shutting down smaller businesses that don’t have as many people come through.

“They have hundreds of people inside and we would have 50 to 60 people at a time. ... It’s asinine is what it is,” he added.

People hold signs protesting Gov. Tim Walz's executive order closing down dine-in service in bars and restaurants along the County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
People hold signs protesting Gov. Tim Walz's executive order closing down dine-in service in bars and restaurants along the County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

In issuing his order targeting bars, restaurants, fitness centers and other businesses, Walz said he based this decision on supporting science. Evidence links bars and restaurants, along with other places in which people tend to gather, to wider spread of COVID-19.

A case-control investigation of 11 U.S. health care facilities published in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found adults with confirmed COVID-19 were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming ill.

“Reports of exposures in restaurants have been linked to air circulation. Direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance,” the study stated. “Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use.”

FREE PIZZA & PEACEFUL PROTEST! We will host a PEACEFUL protest at The Tav from 2-4pm today. We will be offering free...

Posted by Mission Tavern on Saturday, December 12, 2020

Charlie McCulloch took a break from making pizzas to talk about the protest.

“Maybe Gov. Walz will pay some attention to it, too, because we can't continue to survive as a business the way he's treating us,” he said. “First he was supposed to talk on Friday, and then (said) ‘Oh I'm not going to talk Monday. Now I'm gonna not talk Wednesday.’ He doesn't understand how business works, especially in a restaurant. If he's trying to think he's going to give us a day and a half to restock the kitchen with food and the booze and everything to be able to open on Friday, if he lets us do that, you can't operate on a day and a half notice.

“We've been shut down now for what three and a half months this year? What has the state done for us to help us. Absolutely nothing. We've got some help from the feds, and that's what he's waiting for now (thinking) maybe the feds will do it.

... All I have to say is come up north and talk to some business owners up here rather than just the business owners in the Twin Cities. Then he'll get a feel for what we're going through up here. We don't have the population (like the Cities) of the people who can come in. If he thinks we can stay in business on takeout food alone, he's never run a restaurant before.”

Kevin McCulloch hands out slices of pizza to people in a truck along County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Kevin McCulloch hands out slices of pizza to people in a truck along County Highway 3 in front of Mission Tavern Saturday, Dec. 12, in Mission Township. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mike Loomis of Brainerd, who also owns Hard Water Lounge of Crosby, was at Mission Tavern to support their cause.

“I'm here as I own a bar and I'm shut down, and I believe that I should be able to open and operate,” Loomis said. “Hard Water Lounge is a cocktail bar and I don't do any food to go so I get zero money. I asked for nothing. I've taken nothing. I'm just shut down. I'm a criminal now to run my business so I don't know what my alternative is, you know.

“So I'm here in hopes that maybe somebody sees or hears that, you know, I want to be open. I mean ... let citizens make their own choice if they want to go out. I really like the free enterprise concept. I don't believe in smoking cigarettes, for example, but I do believe that if somebody wanted to have an establishment where that was OK (to smoke) inside that would be OK. I believe in that and the reason why is because that's the freedom they would have, and then as the customer they would have the option to go in there or not to go in there.

“I think that's kind of the same thing with this. There seems to be a couple of schools of thought, in my opinion, a couple of different beliefs that you know some people are like, ‘I'm afraid of a virus and I'm going to stay home,’ and some people are like, ‘Well, I'm not afraid of it.’”

Loomis said he has no way of making money right now and with Christmas coming, the holiday isn't going to be nearly as fun as it was in the past. He also feels bad for all the employees who have been laid off with the shutdown.

Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin also stopped by Mission Tavern to show his support to the bar owners. Nevin said he believes it’s “criminal” the governor can make an executive order like for the entire state without looking at it region by region.

“How can he shut down and have all these people be out of work, losing their business, their lives, their families,” Nevin said. “I mean, this is causing such deep wounds. It's never, they're never gonna heal. And people have got choices. If they want to go out and have a beer, if they want to go out and do whatever they want to do, they got a choice. And if they're afraid of this, they can stay home. We have choices and he's taken the choices away.”

Nevin said any business like the Mission Tavern is struggling and it's not only the business, but it’s people who have jobs like picking up the garbage, distributing beer, the servers and the cooks.

“All these people are home, you know,” Nevin said, adding, “It’s just terrible.”

Bailey Marshall, one of the Mission Township servers, was at the protest to support the business. She said she needs her job to help her pay off her student debt and being laid off doesn’t help.

“I’d like to go back to work and do my job and make some money,” Marshall said. “It’s not fair that we are shut down.”

When Walz issued the order, it was amid rapidly escalating cases across the state, including Crow Wing County and the surrounding region. The Minnesota Hospital Association, Minnesota Medical Association and other health care leaders across the state backed the order, warning Minnesotans the hospital system was under intense strain as more people became sick.

In his address announcing the order, Walz spoke directly to small business owners who are feeling the pain.

"To those small business owners, we need our federal partners to step up and provide the relief necessary. You are doing a public service beyond anything that should be ever asked of you. By closing your doors and putting your financial well-being at risk, you are protecting the lives of your neighbors," Walz said, adding a stimulus package is needed that provides small business with help.



JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at jennifer.kraus@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.