A Lakeville restaurant is facing steep fines and the possible loss of its liquor license after it opened on New Year's Eve, defying a state order that bans indoor dining as part of the effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asked a Dakota County District Court judge late Thursday to find Alibi Drinkery in contempt of court. The request came after District Judge Jerome Abrams issued a temporary injunction requiring the establishment to remain shuttered through Jan. 10.
Despite that, patrons packed the Alibi after it announced on Facebook that it would open Thursday morning. Co-owner Lisa Monet Zarza, wearing white fur boots and no face mask, happily greeted customers with an occasional hug as her staff delivered drinks and wings. Some servers wore masks, while most of the customers did not.
Zarza said she put in 80- to 100-hour workweeks during Alibi's first year of operation and she was adamant about celebrating its three-year anniversary — despite the state mandate and the possibility of a legal rebuke. "This is our third-year anniversary and we're going to be open," she said.
Late Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety notified Alibi Drinkery and the Interchange, a coffee shop and bistro selling wine and beer in Albert Lea, that they face a five-year liquor license revocation for "ongoing and blatant violations."
Interchange owner Lisa Hanson said earlier in the day that she planned to hold a New Year's Eve event with live music — "a tiny bit of normalcy." She called the state orders "unlawful and unconstitutional."
The Interchange went ahead with Thursday's event. But it didn't draw the kinds of crowds that have flocked to some other bars that have defied the shutdown orders.
"It was kind of a bust as far as the crowd goes," said an employee who declined to give his name. "Maybe about half full at one point."
A handful of businesses throughout Minnesota opened or remained open this week despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order prohibiting in-person dining in restaurants and closures of venues hosting indoor events and entertainment.
To date, Ellison's office and the Health Department have sued 11 businesses across Minnesota that have spurned the governor's order.
One of them was the Carlson Event Center & Country Chapel in Winnebago. On Thursday, the Faribault County District Court granted Ellison's motion for a temporary restraining order against the business, claiming it had advertised a New Year's Eve bash with beer and liquor.
However, its owner claimed earlier this week the event was a religious gathering — which would have broader leeway under the governor's order.
The court ordered the business to cancel the event, although it was unclear whether it did.
On Thursday night, Garth Carlson, the Winnebago center's owner, said Ellison provided "fraudulent" information in securing the restraining order preventing the New Year's Eve event.
Carlson said Ellison was "denying the Freedom Church of America to peaceably assemble" while a Lutheran church across the street was able to carry on.
"The governor and AG are acting unconstitutionally and abusing their power," he said.
He would not say whether his planned New Year's Eve event had been canceled or not.
Ellison said a few businesses "are choosing to ignore their responsibility: by so doing, they're simply extending the pain the pandemic has already wrought upon all of us."
They could face fines of up to $25,000 "per occurrence" and other costs.
Alibi's lawyer, Mike Padden, said Ellison inflated COVID death statistics in court filings by up to 40%. He said the state "is trying to destroy my client's business."
The state Department of Health on Thursday reported another 61 deaths from COVID-19, bringing the death total in the state to 5,323.
All told, nearly 416,000 Minnesotans have been sickened by the coronavirus since March.
Despite those statistics, business at the Alibi on Thursday was brisk.
Kevin Jensen, 66, said he understands that COVID-19 is "a real deal" after he came down with the virus in mid-November.
Still, the semiretired avid motorcyclist from Lakeville attended six motorcycle rallies over the summer, including Sturgis in South Dakota. That event resulted in 86 Minnesotans contracting the virus.
"[COVID-19] knocked me out pretty bad," Jensen said. "At the peak of it, I thought I was going to die."
But Jensen said he has no regrets and remains suspect of the severity of the virus.
He lives in a small apartment with his two teenage daughters and neither of them contracted COVID-19, he said.
"I'm here to support Lisa because I ride with her and I think what she's doing is courageous," he said.
As Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." played over Alibi's sound system, 35-year-old Landon Moyer of Lakeville sat at the bar with a vodka and soda.
"I'm here to support what I think is constitutionally right," he said.
"There's no one forcing anybody here, right? I mean, we can walk into Walmart, we can walk in Target, they require masks and that's acceptable, right? If you are deathly afraid of this you can stay home."
"At the end of the day, it's to each their own," he added. "And I think that's what Governor Walz and other people are really realizing, is at the end of the day there's bills to be paid."
Staff writer John Reinan contributed to this report.