The fight over whether a Stearns County bar can reopen moved from the streets to the courtroom on Friday.
Unlike earlier this week, there were no beer-drinking, flag-waving patrons on hand to support Shady’s Hometown Tavern and its owner’s desire to reopen as quickly as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite Gov. Tim Walz’s order that bars and restaurants not offer on-premise drinking or dining until June 1.
Instead, lawyers presented arguments via videoconference to Stearns County District Judge Shan Wang, who didn’t rule on the case Friday but promised to make a decision “sooner rather than later.”
Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady’s in Albany, Minn., and five other cities, had vowed last week to reopen in defiance of the governor’s order. On Monday, Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office went to court and got a temporary restraining order preventing the opening.
As a crowd of several hundred supporters gathered outside the Albany bar Monday, Schiffler told them that he wouldn’t defy the order on the advice of his lawyer. But on Friday, his lawyer called Walz’s order unfair and unconstitutional, urging the judge to let Shady’s open.
“My clients don’t have any disrespect for Gov. Walz,” said St. Cloud attorney Gary Leistico, representing Shady’s. Leistico said bars and restaurants in outstate Minnesota are often the only place people have to meet and said that other states have “leapfrogged” over Minnesota on reopening.
“You can go to a bar or restaurant in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska,” Leistico said. “In the Midwest, Minnesota is the standalone.”
Leistico said that 49 states once had restrictions on bars and restaurants, but that only 13 do now.
“My clients are not blind to the issue of safety,” he said. “They are willing to follow [federal safety] guidelines and cooperate with local health authorities.”
That’s not good enough, countered the state’s attorney, who called the pandemic a health emergency that requires a coordinated, statewide approach.
“The state does not take any joy in having to bring this lawsuit,” said Assistant Attorney General Jason Pleggenkuhle.
“It understands the economic difficulties that bars and restaurants across Minnesota are facing.”
But Shady’s owners “cannot replace the governor’s police powers during an emergency with their own judgment about what is right for their business.
“The governor’s judgment … was more than reasonable,” Pleggenkuhle said.
“COVID-19 is a global pandemic. A coordinated and strategic response was needed to respond to the emergency on a state level.”
Ellison was present for the video hearing but didn’t speak, other than to thank the judge at the end.
Much of the hearing was focused on legal cases, precedent and detailed discussions about state laws governing Walz’s emergency powers. But the attorneys occasionally returned to the core of their positions.
For the state, that meant the need for a central authority to coordinate a statewide response to an emergency. For Schiffler and Shady’s, it was a plea not to be hindered in running their business while other businesses in Minnesota have been allowed to operate.
Leistico noted that the majority of COVID-19 cases in Stearns County have been detected among employees of the area’s large meatpacking plants.
Yet “they can remain open, but bars and restaurants are not able to,” he said.
Pleggenkuhle said bars and restaurants are prime breeding grounds for the spread of a pandemic.
“You’re allowing people to gather in a confined space for a long period of time, and when they’re eating they can’t wear a mask,” he said.
Wang called the case “an important issue for everyone involved.
“I think all of us are sympathetic as to the plight of small-business owners in general.”