JJ’s Birdsnest

About 50 bar/restaurant owners gathered Friday, May 15, at JJ’s Birdsnest in Garrison to discuss the questions and challenges with reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s closure order for restaurants and bars.

There has been buzz among local restaurant and bar owners about opening their doors for sit down business before Memorial Day weekend. The businesses say they can’t continue to wait until June 1, the earliest expected date Gov. Walz will allow them to open amid the COVID-19 sanctions. A number of these bar and restaurant owners gathered at JJ’s Bird’s Nest in Garrison on Friday last week to discuss their situation.

Businesses such as retail stores, malls, photographers, and others were allowed to open on Monday, May 18 with limited capacity and social distancing plans in place.

However, the restaurant and bar industry, along with other industries/facilities such as hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, spas, campgrounds, movie theaters, bowling alleys, gyms, churches, and other businesses/institutions that require close proximity with other people are ordered to stay closed until June 1 at the earliest.

Restaurants and bars have been operating at about 25% of their normal business with curbside pick up, but many feel they will no longer be able to do this and still survive, especially through Memorial Day weekend, one of the most profitable weekends of the year.

Gov. Walz said, “We are still in the heart of this pandemic, and this can go in a bad direction very quickly … we must keep this virus at a simmer and not a boil.”

Walz is expected to have guidelines for re-opening these businesses by May 20.

Bar and restaurant owners say they feel they have to choose between not closing the doors of their businesses permanently or receiving harsh penalties by the State of Minnesota such as the loss of an operating license, buyer’s card, a hefty fine or jail time.

Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady’s Hometown Tavern in Albany and five other bars around the state, was present at this month’s Garrison City Council meeting and said he intended to open against the Governor’s order on May 18.

In a video last week, Schiffler stated that he was called by the office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and threatened with a $25,000 fine if he opened his restaurant before being given the green light by the Governor. “We will be given a $25,000 fine per location per occurrence with no maximum of how many times it can happen per day … we can’t afford this after being closed for eight weeks. We cannot open our bars on Monday,” said Schiffler.

House Republicans, led by Representative Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls and included Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Dist. 15A) and Rep. Dale Lueck (R-10B), recently sent a letter to Attorney General Keith Ellison calling on him to “stop threatening businesses, faced with a choice between opening and going out of business, with hefty fines and legal action.”

Ellison subsequently announced Sunday that he would sue Schiffler who plans on opening this week.

Schiffler did proceed to open his Albany-based bar at noon on Monday but made an announcement which was televised on local TV stations that Attorney General Ellison called him and “shut him down” through the use of a court order.

A Mille Lacs area bar and restaurant owner stated to the Messenger that they feel what is happening in Minnesota right now to restaurants and bars is serious overreach by the Governor. They feel that requirements established by the Minnesota Department of Health to maintain food and beverage service licenses already include sanitation practices and are stringent enough; in light of COVID-19, the CDC has provided guidelines for safe reopening. They added that their small businesses are capable of implementing those recommended practices and reducing capacity to implement social distancing guidelines.

The business owner said that their livelihoods depend on tourism, and in Minnesota, tourism thrives in the summer and have already lost a significant amount of business from the opening fishing weekend. The thought of losing Memorial Day is devastating,” they added.

Another Mille Lacs area bar and restaurant owner added that during the current situation that they are facing, many of the small businesses who rely on tourism during the fair weather months to provide our income for the remainder of the year are having to face the fact that they may not be able to keep their doors open for much longer unless changes are made immediately. “We have a choice, open before allowed to and suffer fines that will close us right away or follow the guidelines and pray we get a couple extra months of being able to do some type of business knowing we will have to close anyways,” they added. “How fast do you want your ship to sink,” questioned the business owner.

Mille Lacs County Sheriff Don Lorge told the Messenger Sunday, “As for the businesses opening, I have received several calls the last few weeks. What I have been telling them is that we are not looking at arresting anyone. Depending on what may be happening, we may meet with business owners for educational purposes to see if they have things in place to stay safe. I have stood firm that I will uphold the Constitution of the United States as that is what I have taken an oath to do.”

Crow Wing County Board Chairman Paul Koering announced Sunday that he is calling a special meeting of the County Board to be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 19 to discuss what the County Board can do to help bars and restaurants in Crow Wing County get reopened in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

A number of bars and restaurants, both locally and around the state, say they will be opening this week.

A Gofundme account (https://tinyurl.com/yd2zvdqp) has been set up to support local businesses for attorney fees incurred by opening before the Governor’s orders have been lifted and have generated approximately $196,000 as of Monday.

Beyond bars and restaurants, some local churches have been meeting openly against the Governor’s order, citing it is unconstitutional to prohibit the freedom to exercise religion. A number of churches have joined a lawsuit against the Governor to regain their right to worship as a church body.

One pastor stated of the continued closings that the church “can take care of the people better than the liquor stores can.”

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