Despite an ongoing lawsuit over a bar owner's plans to open during the in-person dining shutdown last May, doors are still open at multiple Shady's sites in central Minnesota.

The Stearns County Board on Tuesday approved the liquor license for the coming year at Shady's Long Shots in Cold Spring — even though the county attorney and sheriff declined to sign the renewal application — and on Wednesday the Albany City Council approved the liquor license renewal for Shady's Hometown Tavern and Event Center.

The Albany establishment was the site of a mostly maskless gathering in May 2020 after several bars and restaurants publicly stated they would reopen despite the state's mandate. At the time, bars and restaurants had been closed for in-person dining since mid-March and Gov. Tim Walz had just extended the restrictions.

Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady's in Albany and in five other cities at the time, vowed to reopen in defiance of the governor's order, posting on social media, "We will be opening our doors Monday, May 18" and "we can't wait to see you" with the hashtags "#landofthefreebecauseofthebrave" and #togetherwestand."

On the day the bars were to open, Attorney General Keith Ellison's office obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the opening and threatening penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. In response, Schiffler told a crowd of several hundred supporters outside his Albany bar that on the advice of his lawyer, he would not defy the order.

The lawsuit against Schiffler is one of 12 filed by the state against establishments for violating the governor's executive orders, said John Stiles, deputy chief of staff for Ellison's office.

Stiles said filing a lawsuit is always the last resort in efforts to gain compliance. He said the 12 enforcement actions — 11 against bars or restaurants and one against a gym — represent only a fraction of all the complaints Ellison's office received and investigated along with the state Department of Health and other partnering agencies.

"There are approximately 10,000 restaurants and 1,500 bars in Minnesota. The 11 enforcement actions we filed against bars and restaurants represent less than ... 0.01%," Stiles said in an e-mail. "That means to the best of our knowledge, 99.99% of all bars and restaurants in Minnesota complied with the executive orders."

Of the 12 lawsuits, five are ongoing: Shady's, Boardwalk Bar & Grill in East Grand Forks, Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville, the Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro in Albert Lea, and Carlson Event Center & Country Chapel in Winnebago.

The seven establishments that settled lawsuits agreed to penalties ranging from stayed fines, meaning a penalty the establishment only pays if it violates any executive orders in the future, to a $15,000 civil fine in addition to a stayed penalty.

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall and Sheriff Steve Soyka told the County Board on Tuesday that they weren't comfortable signing the renewal application, but said they understood the board has the authority to grant the license.

"Since the liquor license holder is still in active litigation regarding following the law, we felt it appropriate to point that out to the board," Kendall said. "We obviously have many, many other liquor license holders in Stearns County who have followed these rules."

Soyka said the Sheriff's Office received some complaints about people not wearing masks at Shady's in Cold Spring, but said every time a deputy followed up on a complaint, people were in compliance with the mandate.

Board Chairwoman Tarryl Clark said she wanted to make sure approving the license wouldn't influence the court case. Kendall said the county is not involved in the litigation so there was no legal reason not to grant the license renewal.

The complaint against Shady's was filed May 17, 2020, and was the first of the 12 filed by the state. In November, Stearns County Judge Shan Wang dismissed claims filed by Shady's attorney Gary Leistico in response to the state's complaint. The claims argued that the restrictions on restaurants and bars violated the Assembly Clause of the First Amendment, were illegal and unconstitutional, and violated Schiffler's equal protection rights.

Neither Leistico nor Schiffler responded to requests for comment.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 9.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny