An attorney for seven bar and restaurant owners argued in court Wednesday that a judge should toss Minneapolis' new vaccine-or-testing requirements, while the city vehemently defended its new policy.
Lawyer Chris Renz, who is representing the business owners, argued that the new rules exceeded Mayor Jacob Frey's emergency powers and that the city already has measures in place, such as a mask mandate, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The new requirements, he said, had cost his clients business and they "will never get these monies back."
"COVID-19 is no longer an emergency in the sense of an unforeseen circumstance as required by and described in state statute and the city ordinance," Renz said during the 45-minute virtual hearing.
Assistant City Attorney Mark Enslin argued that the mayor has the power to issue regulations to protect public safety, health and welfare during emergencies. He noted that the City Council has so far allowed those rules to remain in place.
"The city does have empathy for plaintiffs, their businesses and their employees," Enslin said during the hearing. "To be clear, nothing in this process has been done by fiat. This isn't a situation of the mayor, one man, going out and wielding a club in the city of Minneapolis."
The case is raising questions about how much authority the city — and specifically Frey — has to enact emergency measures during the pandemic. Minneapolis joined a list of other large cities, including St. Paul, that enacted vaccination-or-testing rules as part of an attempt to encourage people to get the shots and avoid shutdowns as hospitals approach maximum capacity.
Hennepin County Judge Laurie Miller, who is presiding over the case, didn't issue a decision Wednesday but promised to do so "as soon as I can."
On Monday, Miller submitted a statement in court disclosing that she's "personally acquainted with" Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader and his wife and occasionally goes out to eat with them.
Miller said she intended to stay on the case because she did not believe that "would cause me to be biased for or against either side in this matter." Neither side objected.
The hearing comes five days after owners of the seven establishments — Smack Shack, the Gay 90s, Sneaky Pete's, Wild Greg's Saloon, Urban Forage, Jimmy John's and Bunkers Music Bar and Grill — filed a lawsuit against the city and Frey, seeking to stop enforcement of the new rule that customers must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
The mandate began at most dining establishments Jan. 19, though for ticketed events it started Wednesday. To eat or drink inside restaurants, bars and other spaces, patrons must show proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken under medical supervision within the last 72 hours. The order does not apply to employees.
Case numbers in Minneapolis are the highest they have been throughout the pandemic, city officials said. In the past week, officials have recorded an average of more than 900 cases per day, with daily case rates at 199.9 per 100,000 people.
As of Jan. 25, about 80% of Minneapolis residents 5 years and older were fully vaccinated.
City officials said Wednesday that they have received 25 complaints in the past week involving businesses not complying with both mask and vaccine-testing requirements. The city said it looked into each complaint and has not identified any violations to date.