A coalition of Minnesota businesses — mostly restaurants and bars — are defying a new mandate from Gov. Tim Walz that prohibits services like indoor dining in the coming weeks.
Walz announced Wednesday, Dec. 16, he would extend an order keeping restaurants and bars closed for indoor service and would authorize elementary schools to reopen with coronavirus mitigation measures in place.
Walz also announced more state aid will be distributed to struggling bars and restaurants, with $88 million to be released in the coming days. The bill includes a further $114.8 million is to be allocated to the state’s 87 counties, which will distribute the monies to local businesses as they see fit, as well as $14 million in available business grants through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“We're still reporting 92 deaths of our neighbors and our fellow Minnesotans today,” Walz said during a virtual briefing Wednesday afternoon. “That's the reality we’re in. We’ve lost more Minnesotans in a six day period than we lose in an entire year on our highways on any given year. And that doesn’t appear at this point in time to be tailing off a whole lot.”
Walz’s decision has garnered criticism from business advocacy groups like Hospitality Minnesota. Some small businesses are defying this order, stating they will not be able to remain open through this extension.
The issue is being framed as an economic crisis, where many businesses are struggling to pay their bills with little to no current federal aid and declining revenues. On the other hand, the issue has also been described as a struggle of defending personal freedoms and resistance to infringements on sacred rights articulated in the U.S. Constitution.
Jennifer Swigart, the proprietor of Long Pine Store and Pizza near Pine River, said she’s in a financial position where she could choose to follow the mandate, but said her decision to disregard the executive order was a matter of standing up for other small businesses and constitutional rights. Swigart said her business will continue to practice social distancing, seating people in separated areas, and encourage mask use when necessary. She noted she hoped more small businesses would band together as a unified block to protest this executive order.
“So many businesses are in need of help right now. There’s a lot of businesses that are not open at all, so I’m hoping they help them out a little bit, get them back on their feet,” Swigart said during a phone interview Wednesday. “This is a moral stand for the Constitution. (The mandate) is not right. It’s just not right. We aren't doing it out of selfishness, we're doing it out of being able to pay our bills. Our bills don't quit coming because we're closed.”
But, while the Reopen Minnesota Coalition has hundreds of businesses on its declared membership list — some of them identified, some of them not — it quickly became apparent at least a few of these businesses have changed course and are now honoring Walz’s executive order. Commenters on the coalition's Facebook page warned some listed businesses were pulling out and opting to follow the mandate.
In the lakes area, an owner of JJ’s Birds Nest, a bar near Garrison, said they could not go through with defying the order and put their employees’ livelihoods at risk.
“We are aware we are on the list, but have made the tough decision to remain closed to indoor service as the legal and financial ramifications would impact us tremendously,” a Birds Nest owner Julie Harris relayed in a statement. “It was a decision not made lightly or without much consideration for the livelihood of us all here and JJ’s as well as also wanting to stand up for what we believe in. We support the lawsuit against the mandate, but cannot put the financial well being of any staff member and their household at risk by reopening with the likelihood of closure and loss of jobs for all staff.”
Those ramifications aren’t to be taken lightly, as evidenced by Mission Tavern. Mission Tavern garnered attention when its owner Jeff McCulloch staged a public protest on the side of County Highway 3 Saturday after they said they received a copy of the executive order from the Crow Wing County’s Sheriff’s Office following multiple complaints Friday. The McCullochs and their employees held signs and offered free pizza to drivers as they demonstrated against the public health mandate.
During a phone call Wednesday, a Mission Tavern employee who didn’t identify herself said the business was served a cease and desist order by the health department. Furthermore, she said, Mission Tavern had its business license suspended and incurred a $10,000 fine for defying the public health moratorium against indoor dining. In a release, Wednesday, the health department stated Mission Tavern’s fine and license suspension were issued after repeated mandate violations endangering its customers and employees during a significant surge in COVID-19 cases statewide last month.
“We’ve said many times that we look at regulatory actions as a last resort,” stated Minnesota Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff in the release. “COVID-19 has impacted all of us, including small business owners. Despite those challenges, the vast majority are doing their best to help slow down the spread of the virus. They recognize that operating out of compliance with COVID-related requirements can put at risk the health of employees and customers, as demonstrated again today when Minnesota reported another 92 deaths. We owe it to those businesses to have a consistent and fair enforcement approach for those requirements.”
Friday, the health department also announced it revoked the business license of The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. on Interlachen Road in Lake Shore after repeated attempts to gain compliance from the business. The Iron Waffle also received a $9,500 fine.
Minnesota Republican leadership renewed calls to reopen the state for business — a consistent position they’ve promoted since the beginning of the pandemic. In prior interviews, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said businesses needed government aid to stay afloat during the pandemic and this was primarily a federal issue Minnesota lawmakers had little control over. There hasn’t been a major federal coronavirus relief package passed since this spring and negotiations between Republican and Democratic leadership for another package have been sluggish at best, while often stalled altogether.
"If Gov. Walz thought people wanted a matrix of rules and guidelines to follow to reopen, he's severely mistaken,” Gazelka stated in a news release. “People will follow simple, commonsense rules to keep each other safe, allow them to operate their business, and get kids back in schools. Thousands of businesses had no problems before, but Walz shut down every single one of them anyway. They are just desperate to keep their business going and the data doesn’t support these new restrictions. Let the businesses and employees who were keeping people safe go back to their jobs with simple, easy to follow guidelines.”
In a media teleconference Wednesday, Walz said the data he’s seeing does support these restrictions, thereby forcing the state to take firm action to curb the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.
“This is a fundamental difference (between me and Gazelka),” Walz said. “The fact is, this is a respiratory disease spread by aerosol. The closer you are to someone, the longer you're close to them, if you're not wearing a mask and these are folks not in your family — which is the absolute definition of a bar or a restaurant — then cases do go up. If you replicated that in your home, the same thing would happen.”
“The problem with the bar or a restaurant, is that you're sitting there eating. You have your mask off. The table next to you, even socially distanced, could have an asymptomatic case in it,” Walz continued. “We know the spread happens from that, just given enough time. Every nation, as I said, and folks trying to mitigate the pandemic understand that it's long-term close proximity in unmasked situations (that worsens the spread).”