Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison brushed aside criticism from GOP lawmakers Sunday and filed suit against the owner of a chain of bars and restaurants who has vowed to reopen this week in violation of executive orders issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Ellison filed the enforcement action against Kris Schiffler, the owner of Shady’s, who operates establishments in Albany, Burtrum, Cold Spring, New Munich, Rice and St. Martin, all in or near Stearns County, which the attorney general’s office termed a COVID-19 hot spot.
Schiffler, in a video statement posted on Facebook, vowed to open his Albany location at noon Monday in defiance of state orders. He also started a GoFundMe campaign to fight the state’s move. He had raised more than $170,000 by Sunday night.
It is the state’s first enforcement action to prevent the premature restart of on-site consumption in bars, taverns and restaurants.
Schiffler had suggested earlier that he might reopen before June 1 at his other locations as well. But his Facebook message on Sunday indicated he would open at his Albany location only. “Everybody’s ready to go. We’re prepared,” Schiffler said. “We hope to see everyone out here ... We can’t wait anymore.”
Ellison said his office has warned Schiffler, indicating that he could be subject to fines of up to $25,000 at each location.
The suit came Sunday after a group of House Republicans defended Shady’s and several other bars and restaurants that they said had been threatened with fines if they reopen. In addition to Shady’s, bars in St. Cloud and Pierz had announced plans to reopen Monday, flouting an updated order from Gov. Tim Walz that set June 1 as the earliest date noncritical businesses such as bars and restaurants can reopen.
Ellison said his office also had warned of fines against the Copper Lantern in St. Cloud and the Brickyard Bar & Banquet Hall in Pierz.
Both establishments have since apparently backed down.
“The vast majority of Minnesota’s bar and restaurant owners are doing the safe, lawful, and right thing during this crisis by keeping their doors closed, while still serving customers as allowed through takeout and drive-up,” Ellison said in a statement. “As hard as it is for them — and I know it’s hard — they’re doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep themselves, their families, their employees, and their customers safe from this deadly pandemic. They deserve all of our thanks.”
But the GOP lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, penned a letter to Ellison questioning his move.
“Our hope is that the Attorney General will work with businesses, not against them,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. “The reality is, when a Main Street business in rural Minnesota shuts down, it hardly ever reopens. When it is forced into closure by their state government, the likelihood increases that their closure will be permanent.”
Copper Lantern owner John Waseka posted a Facebook message on Sunday afternoon saying his establishment would not reopen as planned Monday because it could not absorb the costs of a fine from the state.
In Pierz, Brickyard owner Donald Peine said Friday that he would open for dine-in food and beverage services starting Monday. But according to Ellison’s office, the Brickyard told the attorney general that they would not reopen early.
Stay-at-home restrictions are scheduled to ease on Monday to allow more retail businesses to reopen and for Minnesotans to go out more. But bars, restaurants, theaters, hair salons and other businesses that place people in close contact must remain shuttered until June 1 and can reopen only if they meet safe opening plans still being crafted this week by state health officials.
The letter from the House Republicans assailed Ellison’s office for seeking financial penalties against businesses that violate the state’s modified stay-at-home order. The lawmakers agreed that Ellison had the authority to levy fines but they argued that businesses need to reopen immediately in order to survive.