An increasingly outspoken group of Minnesota business owners — primarily of bars and restaurants — is not only defying Gov. Tim Walz's order banning on-site dining. They are brazenly flouting the order by promoting that they are staying open and by hosting overflow crowds while not requiring patrons to wear masks.
Several owners say they know they're risking fines and the loss of their liquor licenses. But they say there's a bigger issue at stake — even bigger than their financial survival, said Lisa Hanson, owner of Interchange Wine and Coffee Bistro in Albert Lea.
"This is absolutely, 100% about our freedoms and our liberties that have been taken away by a rogue government," she said. "It's a statewide fight, a nationwide fight for our children and our grandchildren."
Larvita McFarquar, who is racking up $250 a day in fines by refusing to close her Havens Garden restaurant in Lynd in southwest Minnesota, said: "As Americans, we need to stand up when government is doing something wrong. We have to hold them accountable."
Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office has so far moved against 10 businesses for reopening in defiance of Walz's order, said the state isn't conducting some nefarious plot to roll back civil liberties.
"All we are doing is trying to save lives and protect health. That's it," he said in an interview Tuesday. "This is not about liberty. This is about protecting people from a lethal disease."
Since mid-March, thousands of Minnesota businesses from hair salons to fitness studios, movie theaters to sports arenas have felt the sting of shutdowns as Walz has tried to slow COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. But the governor's most recent order, issued Nov. 18 and extended last week to Jan. 11, is what seems to have been the last straw for some. From East Grand Forks to Plainview and Lynd to Lakeville, a number of business owners not only have ignored the order, but have been unabashed in doing so.
Two weeks ago, the Boardwalk Bar and Grill in East Grand Forks opened in defiance of the order. On Monday, a judge issued a temporary injunction ordering Boardwalk to close. Last week, Ellison's office filed lawsuits against Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton for doing the same. And this week, the attorney general's office announced suits against bars and restaurants in Monticello, Anoka, New Prague, Clark's Grove and the Interchange in Albert Lea. In several cases, judges also have granted Ellison's requests for temporary restraining orders. Still, several owners have stayed open.
In some cases, Hanson and others said, owners defied Walz because their employees are struggling as Christmas approaches. But other, more philosophical reasons are gaining prominence. Big government is trying to grab too much power, said the Albert Lea restaurant owner.
"I believe the governor is up to no good," Hanson said.
The owners' insurrection has an ally and advocate in Jake Duesenberg. The Lake Elmo man is president of Action 4 Liberty, which has fought what it calls Walz's abuse of power since April. Not only do they say the governor overstepped his authority, they also dispute data and models the state has used to justify restrictions. In the end, he said, people should make their own choices.
"Our country doesn't operate with one guy calling the shots," said Duesenberg, a former Army officer. "These bar and restaurant owners opening in defiance? We consider them heroes. … We can't lose our republic over a pandemic."
Michael Padden, an attorney representing Alibi Drinkery co-owner Lisa Monet Zarza, said owners have little choice but to risk fines and the loss of their licenses.
"The other option is going out of business," he said. "A lot of these entities took a bad hit with the shutdown in the spring — and it's only gotten worse."
Padden, who said he contracted COVID-19 in November "and I cannot tell you how I got it," said restrictions aren't stopping the virus. They're only destroying businesses. His strategy, he said, is to continue arguing that Walz doesn't have the power to do what he's done and that limiting some businesses, like restaurants, but not others is unconstitutional.
Ellison said most the state's 10,000 restaurants and 1,500 bars are following restrictions because their owners understand the danger. Courts, too, continue to side with Walz regarding the scope and application of his emergency powers, he said.
While Ellison said he sympathizes with businesses that are struggling to survive the pandemic, that struggle doesn't give them an unlimited right to operate as they wish.
"Nobody gets to do everything they want … not while living in a civil society. And not if it's hurting other people," he said. "I do not understand their thinking. And I don't think most Minnesotans do either."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428