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. Wednesday, but she was far from the only one.
More than 160 Minnesota businesses planned to open Wednesday, with hundreds more also expected to announce a similar intention, defying Gov. Tim Walz’s current executive order designed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 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.
“People want Minnesota to open,” she said.
Also Wednesday, 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, will be allowed to reopen conditionally starting 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.
Monet said she’s considering suing the Walz administration. Even though she opened her bar, Monet noted she can’t bring employees back due to the executive order.
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 requested all businesses voluntarily comply with the executive order and said Wednesday that he would take legal action when needed against those who didn’t, noting 90% of Minnesota’s ICU and non-ICU hospital beds are full. Last 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.
“The vast majority of businesses that we have worked with are complying with executive orders because they understand their responsibility to keep people safe and care about their customers, employees, and communities,” Ellison said. “Using our enforcement tools to force compliance on the few that are not complying or are threatening not to comply is a last resort, but we will use them when we need to.”
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.
“I’m also asking businesses that are considering reopening in defiance of executive orders not to do it,” he said. “You’re putting people at risk. People will get sick and die because of you. Not only from COVID-19: If someone has a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident and dies because they can’t get an ICU bed that’s being used by someone who got COVID at your establishment, or got it from someone who got it at your establishment, that death is also on you.”
‘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.