An executive order issued last month by Gov. Tim Walz closing bars and restaurants and other businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 is set to expire Friday.
But a loose-knit group of businesses doesn't plan to wait to reopen their doors.
ReOpen Minnesota Coalition, which claims support from roughly 160 statewide businesses ranging from bars to fitness studios, plans to defy the governor by encouraging members to reopen Wednesday, the same day Walz is expected to extend or modify his executive order or let it expire. Their livelihoods — and their constitutional rights — are at stake, said Lisa Monet Zarza, a coalition member who owns Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville.
"The financial part of it sucks," Zarza said, adding that she's furloughed 45 employees at Alibi and another bar she owns. "But it's more than just that. We donate catering, support youth sports, the police and the Rotary. It's hurting the fabric of the community."
State Attorney General Keith Ellison wouldn't say Monday whether he plans to take action against businesses that reopen early. But he hinted at such in a written statement, saying: "I get no happiness out of enforcing the order, but my duty to protect Minnesotans from the deadliest global pandemic in a century demands it …
"It's not fair to the vast majority of businesses who are doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19 and are complying with the executive order to let a handful who chose not to compete unfairly with them."
The governor's office and Minnesota Department of Health echoed that theme.
"The overwhelming majority of restaurants and bars in Minnesota are doing their part to keep Minnesotans safe during this historic pandemic. That's why Gov. Walz is working with the Legislature to provide these businesses with immediate financial relief," Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for Walz, said in an e-mail.
Said Dan Huff, an assistant health commissioner: "Consistent enforcement is an important fairness issue for the vast majority of businesses that are following COVID-related protocols. It's also important to minimize the spread of this virus, which has already sickened and killed far too many Minnesotans."
The state has already taken action against two restaurants for defying the Walz order: Boardwalk Bar & Grill in East Grand Forks and Havens Garden in Lynd. Ellison's office sued Boardwalk and the health department sued Havens Garden. Judges issued temporary restraining orders against both, and the state suspended Boardwalk's liquor license for 60 days — something officials warned could happen to other bars defying Walz's order.
Darius Teichroew, a Twin Cities engineer who started building a coalition of businesses last spring, said the open-ended nature of orders closing or restricting businesses has already caused some to fail and left many on the brink of ruin. With talk of Walz extending the shutdown, he said, businesses have to take control of their futures.
"It's desperate straits for a lot of these businesses," he said.
Not everyone in the state's hospitality industry, however, is advocating rebellion.
"We fall in the world of ensuring our guests' safety," said Richard Dobransky, president of Morrissey Hospitality in St. Paul. "We're in a public health crisis and we're in this for the greater good of the public."
Dobransky, whose company owns 11 Twin Cities restaurants including the St. Paul Grill, three hotels and two event centers, thinks it's a bad idea to reopen and close repeatedly.
"Why risk your license for short-term gain? So they make $400 in two days and then they have to close forever?" he asked.
"We've all been hurt tremendously. Let's hunker down and reopen the best way."
Hospitality Minnesota, an association for restaurants, resorts and lodging, has been advocating for the state to reopen restaurants and other food service businesses for indoor dining at 50% capacity or more — but is not involved with ReOpen Minnesota.
"We understand the dire situation so many small businesses find themselves in right now," said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of the lobbying group. "Our focus has been getting some immediate financial help to these small businesses through the grant relief package that will be voted on by lawmakers in the Special Session [Monday]. This is a critical step."
Staff Writer John Ewoldt contributed to this report.