Lisa Monet, co-owner of Lakeville-based Alibi Drinkery and Alibi at Froggy Bottoms in Northfield, opened her Lakeville bar for in-person dining at 11 a.m. Dec. 16, but she was not the only one.
However, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced late last week that Dakota County District Court granted a temporary restraining order against the establishment, the same day the Minnesota Department of Health announced it had also issued a cease-and-desist order to Alibi and The Interchange, in Albert Lea, after determining that the facilities had violated executive orders he said are to protect employees, customers and community from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m gratified the court recognizes the severity of the pandemic and the need to take urgent action to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Ellison said. “I’m equally gratified that the vast majority of Minnesota bars and restaurants are already complying with their responsibility to keep their customers, employees and communities safe. The very few that aren’t complying are simply prolonging the pandemic and the pain it’s caused all of us.”
On Dec. 16, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division notified the Lakeville Alibi and the Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton that they face a 60-day suspension of their liquor licenses. That same day, Gov. Tim Walz extended the current month-long ban on indoor bar and restaurant service through the year-end holidays as the state is working to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The current restrictions limiting bars and restaurants to takeout only were set to expire Friday. The revamped order continues to prohibit indoor service at bars and restaurants, but allows outdoor tables at 50% capacity, or 100 people. The restrictions will stay in place through Jan. 10, short-circuiting celebrations at bars and restaurants on New Year’s Eve, traditionally a huge night for those businesses.
Gyms and fitness centers, which have also been shut for the month, were allowed to open Saturday. Those can operate at 25% capacity with no showering or pool activity allowed, and no group exercise classes before Jan. 4. Youth sports teams will be allowed to resume practices on Jan. 4, but games won’t be allowed until later. Beginning Jan. 18, elementary schools can do in-person teaching but must utilize regular testing and have staff wear face shields and masks.
‘People want Minnesota to open’
Last week, Monet said her plans to open have drawn hundreds of positive phone calls and online messages as well as death threats against her and her family. Monet said she was considering suing the Walz administration.
“People want Minnesota to open,” she said.
Though Walz has referenced the heavy toll the state’s restaurant industry has faced from the pandemic, she believes he hasn’t done enough to support owners and their employees. To her, all owners must make the personal decision on whether to open up, and she is framing the dispute as a defense of her Constitutional rights.
“Our forefathers were willing to risk it all,” she said.
Ellison: Enforcement ‘a last resort’
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Dec. 16 that he would take legal action against any business that violated the executive order Wednesday, noting 90% of Minnesota’s ICU and non-ICU hospital beds were full at that time. The previous week, Polk County District Court granted Ellison’s motion for a temporary restraining order to prohibit the East Grand Forks bar and restaurant Boardwalk Bar and Grill from opening. Its liquor license was subsequently suspended for 60 days. On Dec. 16, Ellison noted of the 150 businesses that reportedly defied the governor’s order, 40% could already open, didn’t intend to violate the order, or are anonymous. Of the remaining number, approximately 60 are restaurants and bars. Of those, 20 reportedly told Ellison they are complying with the executive order and are not open to on-site sales. He said only “a small handful” of restaurants have shown to not be in compliance.
“My job and my duty is to protect Minnesotans,” Ellison said. “People like to ask, what is the attorney general going to do? What they should be asking is, what is coronavirus going to do? Coronavirus is deadly and it’s continuing to spread: It doesn’t care who you are or where you live, where you work or where you let off steam. You’re not immune from it and your loved ones aren’t either. No one is.”
“Our approach from the start has been to win voluntary compliance, and in almost all cases, we’ve been able to do so,” he added. “To those few businesses that are choosing to openly violate the executive order, I say this is the wrong way to go. I don’t enjoy using the enforcement tools I have, but I will use them to hold violators accountable and keep Minnesotans safe.”
In acknowledging the economic impact of the pandemic, Ellison noted the Legislature recently passed a $216 million grant program for businesses such as bars and restaurants along with a 13-week extension on unemployment insurance.
‘We were looking for a different outcome’
Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Executive Director Brad Meier said Walz’s decisions will prolong the pain faced by impacted business owners who have faced massive losses in revenue over the previous months, making it hard for some to survive.
“We were looking for a different outcome,” Meier said. “We wanted him to end the pause.”
Meier said though the Chamber understands Walz’s stated objective to decrease COVID-19 cases and deaths, he also spoke of the safety precautions Owatonna businesses have taken to ensure the safety of their staff and customers, like mask-wearing and social distancing requirements.
“Our businesses are able to move in safely and do the right things, so we think there is a balance there,” he said.
In the meantime, Meier noted the Chamber is holding a “Takeout Challenge” each week, encouraging the community to support restricted businesses. The Chamber doles rewards to people who post takeout pictures on social media.
‘The greater good is more important’
Northfield-based Tanzenwald Brewing Co-owner Jenaveve Bell Pittman said she supports Walz’s executive order because of the extensive and continuing spread of the virus.
“Honestly, I think the greater good is more important right now,” she said. “We will survive as a company.”
“People’s lives are more important, and I think he is doing the right thing.”
Pittman, who noted she never felt unsafe when Tanzenwald was open at 50% capacity, said she also supports the order because she wants to protect her employees. She noted Tanzenwald distanced its tables, enacted strict protocols, set up a different reservation system and changed other operations to protect staff and customers.
“I don’t want to put them at risk with having unmasked people inside,” she added.
“You just see people, when they drink they become more irresponsible,” Pittman said.
Still, Pittman added she would like restaurant and bar owners to have more time to plan for any changes to dining requirements so they can more quickly adjust to any shifts.
Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler and the leaders of several of the state’s other major health care organizations support the executive order.
“There is no question that 2020 has been exceedingly difficult for every Minnesotan, especially those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19,” she said. “We continue to appreciate the leadership of the Walz administration and support these recommendations which will help limit community spread of the virus to ensure that we are able to meet all of the health care needs of the community. Reimagining the holidays and valued traditions is an important thing that all of us can do to help protect each other and our amazing care workers. The forthcoming vaccine is cause for hope. However, we must stay committed to effective public health measures now to prevent further illness and suffering.”
Jared Simon, who helps coach the Faribault Public Schools wrestling team and an unaffiliated Faribault Wrestling Club youth program, also agreed with the state’s approach. The youth program has its own facility and is expected to start Jan. 5.
Simon noted even though Faribault Public Schools sports practices will be able to resume Jan. 4, the final decision still rests with the school district. He expects that to hinge on whether the School Board vote to return to in-person learning.
A downtown Northfield staple is set to consolidate operations, making space for a redevelopment project in the city’s historic district.
Bierman’s Home Furnishings, at the intersection of Fifth and Division streets, announced Wednesday it would close the family’s furniture operation and consolidate operations at Bierman’s current flooring store, 1289 Bollenbacher Dr. A closing date for the store, more than 125 years old, has not been announced.
Bierman’s also sells luxury vinyl, carpet, hardwood, sheet vinyl and laminate products as well as commercial carpet, luxury vinyl plank and tile, and other products.
“Bierman’s has always relied on the patronage and opportunities within the Northfield community and the surrounding area,” Robert Bierman said in a press release. “With a dedicated staff, quality products and competitive pricing, we always strive to promote the best customer service we can achieve on a daily basis. This recipe has been the key to the longevity Bierman’s has enjoyed for three generations. This heritage will continue as we enter 2021 to add another year to our storied history of business in Northfield.”
Northfield Economic Development Coordinator Nate Carlson has not returned a request for comment.
Northfield Public Schools preschoolers and K-2 students are slated to return to in-person learning Monday, Jan. 19, with older youth expected in a hybrid option by early February.
The announcement, made by Superintendent Matt Hillmann Friday, came a couple days after Gov. Tim Walz prioritized the return of elementary children in submitting a similar plan for schools across the state. Any learning model changes, made based in part to county COVID-19 infection numbers, no longer pertain to elementary schools.
Under the district’s plan, distance learning for those students will continue from Jan. 4-13. After that, no school is scheduled from Jan. 14-15 so teachers can plan for the return of K-2 students. Students in third to fifth grades are scheduled to return to exclusively in-person learning Feb. 1. Students in those grades won’t have school from Jan. 27-29 so those teachers can prepare.
Northfield Middle School, High School and Area Learning Center students are preliminarily slated to continue distance learning from Jan. 4-28 before resuming hybrid learning Feb. 2. However, those plans also rest on the progression of the virus as measured by Rice County Public Health. The state recommends exclusive distance learning for school districts with infection rates above 50 per 10,000 residents. Rice County’s infection rate per 10,000 residents from Nov. 29-Dec. 12 was 102.94. Northfield Public Schools has been operating in a distance learning format since late last month after there were significant increases in virus numbers locally and throughout Minnesota.
For Northfield Community Education, facility rentals are slated to resume Jan. 4 for local youth athletic associations who have existing approved safety plans on file. Such a return will be phased with smaller groups. In-person recreation programs will also resume Jan. 4. In-person enrichment programs are set to begin Feb. 1.
“The purpose of this timeline is to return students to in-person or hybrid learning in an intentional and safe manner,” Hillmann noted. “It prioritizes the in-person instruction for our youngest learners.”
The Minnesota Department of Education requires school staff to wear face masks and face shields in the building and students need to wear face masks while participating in physical education. Staff will have the chance to take a free COVID-19 test every two weeks.