Lisa Monet Zarza wasn't quite sure what she'd see when she opened her restaurant at 11 a.m. Wednesday in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's order closing bars and restaurants to indoor dining. But even she admits the hours of crazy, bustling, nonstop full tables at her Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville caught her by surprise.
"It's insane," she said of the overflow crowd. "We've got people I've never seen before driving in from an hour away, just to show their support."
The state acted quickly, issuing a news release Wednesday night saying that it was notifying Alibi Drinkery and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton that it intends to suspend their liquor licenses for 60 days, pending a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Zarza's business is one of more than 100 that have signed on to openly defy the order Walz issued a month ago to slow the spread of COVID-19 across Minnesota. Health officials say their data show bars and restaurants are prime superspreader locations. But an increasingly vocal cadre of business owners worried about their financial survival say they plan to rebel.
The open defiance sparked a heated response from Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was asked what he plans to do in the wake of the rebellious bars reopening.
"It puts the state of Minnesota in a spot, where we are seeing 3,000 to 4,000 new infections a day. What did we just have, 92 more deaths?" he said. "Before I talk to you about what I am going to do, we should talk about what COVID is going to do. [Defiant bar owners] are spreading a deadly disease to your neighbors."
He said he knows COVID-19 is an economic crisis as well as a health crisis. But reopening for on-site dining and drinking is the wrong way to solve it, he said. He pleaded with business owners to not follow through with their reopening plans. But make no mistake, Ellison said, "We will enforce the law."
Ellison's office has filed lawsuits against two businesses that refused to close — Boardwalk Bar & Grill in East Grand Forks and Plainview Wellness Center in Plainview. Judges later ordered the businesses closed. Ellison also represents the Minnesota Department of Health in its lawsuit against Havens Garden in Lynd, Minn., for continuing to operate on-site dining and entertainment.
State officials have in the past several months worked with more than 850 establishments that chose to voluntarily comply with the order, Ellison said.
On Wednesday night, the Health Department said it has fined Mission Tavernin Merrifield, Minn., $10,000 for opening twice after Walz's previous executive order prohibited it.
Darius Teichroew, an organizer of the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition, said he's "extremely disappointed" with the governor's decision to extend the shutdown of on-site dining until Jan. 11. More than 100 businesses have agreed to make their names public and hundreds more have expressed an interest in joining the fight, he said. The business owners who have signed on to openly defy those orders understand they are risking fines — and more.
"We're hearing that [Wednesday] was a good day," he said. "There was this unknown going into this: 'Are we going to have people with pitchforks surrounding our business or have Ellison come out and knock on our doors?' But it's been very positive."
It was not a good day for Jon Erickson, owner of Angry Inch Brewing next door to Alibi. He said the crowd outside the shared building seemed uninterested in social distancing and unwilling to wear masks. He's fastidiously followed the state's recommendations and rules, Erickson said. He said his neighbor should as well.
"They should [reopen] the right way. There are no shortcuts," he said.
Inside Alibi Drinkery, the music was thumping off the walls as more than 100 customers filled tables and sat at the bar. A sign on the bathroom door read, "We are a Constitutionally compliant business." It had the phone number of the Constitutional Law Group at the bottom. "Your health is your responsibility," it read.
Jacob Young, a Texas native who tends bar in Apple Valley, said he hopes more restaurants open and more customers join those already out.
"They can't shut everyone down," he said.
Zarza said she takes the coronavirus seriously, but she said she has a right to be in business and let her customers decide if they feel safe enough to come out for a bite to eat and a beverage.
"People are really, really happy," she said, watching the stream of beers and burgers heading to tables. "People want to be out, they want to eat and they want to be normal."
She said she intended to keep serving until 2 a.m., her normal closing time. And if the state objects?
"You know what?" Zarza said. "We'll see them in court."
Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.