Pleading with Minnesota restaurants to "do the right thing" to stop the spread of COVID-19, state Attorney General Keith Ellison on Friday filed two more lawsuits against eateries that he said aren't doing so.
Ellison's office announced taking action against Cork in Anoka and Cornerstone Cafe in Monticello, alleging that both have been operating on-premises dining in open violation of the executive order Gov. Tim Walz issued last month and extended through Jan. 10. That order prohibits indoor dining, citing data that they say show that the closed spaces of bars and restaurants are especially susceptible to spreading the virus.
"There are 10,000 restaurants and 1,500 bars in Minnesota. By far the vast majority of them have served their communities by complying with the law all along. Of the few that have threatened not to comply and the even fewer that violated the law, many have already pulled back.
"The two restaurants that we're holding accountable today are among the very few that have refused to live up to their responsibility to keep their customers, employees, and communities safe," Ellison said in a statement.
"Once again, I'm asking all restaurants and bars to do the right thing and comply with the law and orders that are designed to stop the spread of COVID-19."
Bobby Martin, owner of Cork, said he's not trying to prove a point. He's just trying to survive with a 13-table restaurant.
"I'm scared to death, and I'm being called a patriot," he said. "We are not Applebee's. I don't turn over dozens of tables every 30 minutes. I just want people to have a choice."
Martin, who said his grandmother died of COVID-19 two weeks ago, has arranged his tables 6 feet apart. But his menu, which features Copper River salmon and New Zealand rack of lamb, is not conducive to carryout.
"I'm not trying to be a menace," he said. "But I don't see the order as a law. It's unconstitutional in my opinion."
According to Ellison's office, on Dec. 17, Cork informed them that the restaurant would remain open. An investigator later witnessed patrons eating and drinking inside.
Cornerstone Cafe advertised on Dec. 16 that it was going to be open for on-site dining, according to the Attorney General's Office. An investigator confirmed that Cornerstone was serving customers indoors on Dec. 17.
"Cornerstone's table service posed particularly high risks during the global pandemic. ... Customers and staff were not wearing masks, and customers were seated at tables fewer than six feet apart," the Attorney General's Office said. The owner did not respond to the attorney general's repeated attempts to contact him.
On Friday, Cornerstone owner Greg Ashfeld said he doesn't have a lot of time to talk. Business has been brisk since he reopened Wednesday.
"I've got a job to do, unlike [Ellison]," he said. "I've got customers who are begging me to stay open."
Why, he wanted to know, could airport restaurants stay open "but my customers can't go to their neighborhood cafe and support them?"
Walz's order exempts critical infrastructure operations as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Airport restaurants are exempt because travelers are often stuck at airports with nowhere to eat or drink.
Ellison said he's not suing defiant restaurants out of spite.
"I'd much prefer people do the right thing on their own, but I will use [enforcement tools] when I have no other choice to protect Minnesotans from this deadly virus," he said.
Ellison's office on Thursday filed lawsuits against Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton. Late Friday, Ellison's office announced it has obtained a restraining order closing Alibi. More defiance is likely to follow — a number of other bar and restaurant owners have indicated they, too, plan to open.
Martin said he is trying to survive during a trying time. "I literally only have to do 25 customers in four days [each week] to survive," he said. "I'm not trying to make a political statement. I want everybody to survive. I'm not a right wing or a left wing or an independent wing. I'm just an American."
Also Friday, the state Health Department said it has filed a cease-and-desist order against The Interchange in Albert Lea.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428