ALBANY, MINN. – Wiping tears from his eyes, the owner of a Stearns County bar and restaurant told a disappointed crowd of supporters Monday that he wouldn’t be opening for business in defiance of a state order.
“I’m not standing here in tears because I’m happy to open,” Kris Schiffler said, speaking through a bullhorn to several hundred people crowding the sidewalk outside Shady’s Hometown Tavern and Event Center. “I’m standing here in tears because the attorney general has just shut us down.”
Just before the publicized noon opening, Stearns County Judge William Cashman issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Shady’s chain of six restaurants from opening for dine-in service Monday. Cashman ordered all parties to appear in court May 22 for a hearing on a lawsuit brought by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
“Our attorney has advised us not to open our doors,” Schiffler said, prompting a smattering of boos and shouts from the crowd, estimated at between 200 and 300 people.
“This has never been about money,” he said. “It’s about our freedom. This is a fight for the small businesses.”
Few masks and little social distancing were seen among the throng crowding Railroad Avenue in this town of 2,700 residents some 85 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Supporters hugged and shook hands with one another as Shady’s employees wove their way through the crowd, selling T-shirts for $20. Many people traveled an hour or more to be here in support of small businesses and what they called their constitutional rights.
“I drove an hour and a half to get here,” said Denise Rieke, owner of a bar in Gibbon, Minn., a Sibley County town of about 760 residents. “I can’t live on takeout orders.
“We can be as safe [in a bar] as in Walmart or Menards.”
Many of Schiffler’s supporters echoed her thoughts, saying the governor’s orders have been unfair to small businesses.
“We’re all in this storm together — we’re just in different boats,” said Alan Loch, whose goldsmithing business in Buffalo, Minn., has been closed.
“A lot of people would rather die than lose their livelihood or their constitutional rights,” said Connor Heinen of St. Cloud, as he held an American flag.
After Schiffler’s announcement, many ordered Shady’s takeout and picnicked in a park across the street with food and cases of beer.
“I think it’s awesome that he was trying to reopen,” said Leah Pelzer of St. Cloud. “If we, the public, are in support, what’s the problem?” Pelzer said she wanted to back Schiffler because his tavern catered her wedding.
“There’s no law that says you have to go out [to a bar] if it’s open,” added Kevin Hurrle, who drove about 40 miles from South Haven, Minn., to show support.
In his order, the judge acknowledged the pandemic as representing “one of the greatest public health emergencies Minnesota has endured in recent history” and noted its “recent rapid increase of confirmed cases in Stearns County, from just 55 in early May to 1,161 by May 7.” The virus has so far claimed 731 lives in the state.
“They’re gone, they will not go to their grandchildren’s graduations, they will not go to husbands’ birthdays,” Ellison said in an interview Monday. “They’re gone and we can prevent deaths if we just follow basic rules. Just opening up your restaurant because you feel like it in violation of the rules is a risky, dangerous thing.”
Bars and restaurants in Minnesota have been ordered closed since mid-March, though they can offer takeout and delivery service. Recent legislative action also permitted to-go sales of beer, cider, hard seltzer or wine with food orders.
Cashman found “good cause to believe that the State will likely prevail on the merits of its claims that Defendants are about to violate” Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order, which the judge described as designed to “slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus in order to protect public health and safety.”
Over the weekend, attorneys from Ellison’s office contacted about a dozen businesses that they believed planned to reopen this week in violation of the order. All but Shady’s stood down and told the office that they would not yet reopen.
One of those businesses was the Copper Lantern in St. Cloud. On Monday, owner John Waseka penned a letter to Walz, calling for an immediate end to the executive order.
“These business owners, who can open with safe and reasonable accommodations, are now being threatened with retribution,” Waseka wrote. “Their only intent is to open their business so they can pay their bills. This is not a state — or a country — I want to live in. A society where threats and fear are used to control the population.”
Schiffler had posted on social media about reopening in defiance of the governor’s order. As late as an hour before the judge’s order, Schiffler maintained that he’d go ahead with his plan.
He’s also used social media to rouse support, opening a GoFundMe account that had raised $210,000 by Monday evening. Schiffler said he planned to use the money for legal fees.
Walz on Monday defended the attorney general’s actions while sympathizing with Minnesota business owners “who have been put in a terrible position by COVID-19.”
“The fact of the matter is these are lawful orders and public order and public safety is dependent on people being able to follow them,” Walz said. “Now our hope is most people follow them out of the social need to help one another. But when people blatantly say they’re not going to follow the law — whether it’s traffic violations or whether it’s public safety issues — you have to follow through with those.”
Walz and Ellison have come under fire from Republican state lawmakers, who have stopped short of disagreeing that the two have the authority to carry out the orders. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Monday that Ellison “needs to be very judicious in the use of his power here” because businesses were trying to reopen early “because they are desperate.”
“He has to be very, very careful because they’re at a place where they’re not going to make it,” Gazelka said of the businesses opening prematurely.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., called Ellison’s actions “reprehensible, unnecessary and un-Minnesotan.”
“Prosecuting those attempting to safely reopen and save their livelihoods at this time could not be more out of touch with the thousands of Minnesotans struggling to stay afloat,” Emmer said.
On Monday, Ellison pushed back at suggestions that his office should not enforce violations of the executive order and argued that the Legislature itself can and has not chosen to reject Walz’s peacetime state of emergency.
“So what they’re saying is, they’re not going to exercise their rights under the state statute but they’re going to try to make me not do my job?” Ellison said. “No, I’m going to do my job.”