GARRISON, Minn. — As a spring snowfall kept the bite quiet and drove anglers off the lakes during the fishing opener May 9, bar owner Scott Lorentz watched what could’ve been a record weekend slip through his fingers.

Ordered closed by Gov. Tim Walz since March 17 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the state, Lorentz and dozens of other bar and restaurant owners don’t want to see the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend come and go without the chance to open their doors. Angry over another extension of the closure order through June 1, about 50 businesspeople attended a meeting Friday, May 15, at Lorentz’s bar and restaurant JJ’s Birds Nest in Garrison to discuss the possibility of defying Walz and opening anyway.

“Unfortunately in this environment up here in Brainerd … if you don’t get the main four holidays and the rest of it, you’re not going to make the winter,” Lorentz said after the meeting.

Limited to takeout or curbside, bar and restaurant owners are still responsible for many costs associated with their businesses while their incomes are dramatically reduced. Lorentz said he’s spent nearly $15,000 just to keep his doors open. Meanwhile, disaster relief funding and the Paycheck Protection Program haven’t provided what he’d hoped.

About 50 people gathered Friday, May 15, to discuss the questions and challenges with reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's closure order for restaurants and bars at JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
About 50 people gathered Friday, May 15, to discuss the questions and challenges with reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's closure order for restaurants and bars at JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Steven Jenniges, commander of the American Legion in Deerwood, said he was forced to dump out thousands of dollars’ worth of beer when the closure first occurred. He said if it weren’t for takeout business, the Legion wouldn’t survive at all.

“We would be bankrupt right now if we didn’t do these takeout meals,” he said. “We would’ve locked up two weeks ago.”

But unknowns about enforcement and liability, the implementation of safety and health measures, food supply chain challenges and whether employees are willing or able to return to work is adding up to more questions than answers for frustrated business owners.

Push to reopen

Those in attendance expressed a number of grievances, noting they believed their industry was better equipped than most others to handle increased cleanliness measures due to the training they already have. Some said they would’ve been ready to adhere to new standards back in mid-March. Lorentz said he’s switched to plastic flatware, has plans to install hand sanitizer dispensers at every entrance and bathroom door along with behind the bar, and will keep condiment caddies in the back to be sanitized after each use.

There were complaints of inconsistent and seemingly nonsensical rules, such as allowing clubhouses at golf courses to sell beer for consumption off-site, but not on the course. Anxiety was present over what capacity limits there might be, how it would be enforced and how much revenue business owners could make in those circumstances.

The call comes as more townships, cities and counties are passing resolutions or submitting letters to Walz pleading with him to reopen the remaining closed small businesses sooner. Crow Wing County Board Chairman Paul Koering told the crowd he would support a resolution allowing businesses in the county to reopen — although that could lead to legal troubles for the county down the road, if passed.

“I’m elected by the people. I’m representing the people that live down here, and just because the governor says, by god, this is the way it’s going to be, that means I’m supposed to be a sheep and I’m supposed to listen to just whatever he says?” Koering said. “I’m not supposed to push back? No, I’m elected by the people. I will fight for you, if it comes to making a motion to protect these small businesses, I’m going to have your rear ends, I can tell you that.”

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering walks back to his seat after speaking to a crowd of restaurant and bar owners frustrated by closures Friday, May 15, at JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering walks back to his seat after speaking to a crowd of restaurant and bar owners frustrated by closures Friday, May 15, at JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Garrison Mayor Loren Larson and Deerwood Mayor Michael Aulie both stated intentions of considering resolutions urging Walz to allow businesses to reopen, although they noted those resolutions come with expectations of adhering to public health measures and creating reopening plans.

“Nobody wants to open up and have their worker at risk or their patrons at risk,” Aulie said. “I know that in a small community, I told the governor, our patrons are people we know, they’re regular people and whatnot. We don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way.”

How many patrons will feel safe enough to return upon reopening — whenever that happens — remains a mystery. Bar owners Friday acknowledged how difficult they expect it to be to enforce 6-foot distancing in their establishments.

“People can linger in a bar or restaurant, it’s just what they do, they’re going to communicate,” Lorentz said. “If you think people … are going to come into a bar and stay away from somebody they haven’t seen in seven weeks, you are mistaken. We can’t control it.”

Some said they planned to address this by putting signs on their doors, warning people they’re entering at their own risk. The Friday meeting itself was in defiance of the current restrictions in place by executive order as a large gathering with little to no social distancing practiced, few masks visible and many handshakes, including by Koering.

Lorentz said he didn’t know how big the gathering would become, adding he could’ve moved it outside but no one seemed to care.

“It’s kind of hard for these people to social distance when they know each other, and they haven’t seen each other either so they’re all communicating on what to do to try to keep their livelihoods for them and their families,” he said. “ … We view it as it’s our choice, it’s what we choose to do, but we will follow whatever the state tells us we have to do to open. But I can’t stop what people perceive to be what they believe to be right.”

Possible consequences

Also in attendance at the morning meeting were Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken and County Administrator Tim Houle, along with Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and Kris Schiffler, the owner of Shady’s Hometown Tavern in Albany and five other bars throughout the state he plans to open May 18.

Chesak said he wanted to share his knowledge acquired from direct involvement as part of a committee tackling the challenges of reopening for the food and beverage service sector. He’s handled over 1,000 phone calls from business owners who are scared they’ll lose their livelihoods due to the shutdowns.

“A lot of tearfelt conversations, a lot of anger, the five steps of grieving,” Chesak said. “You guys just can’t get past the anger stage. I’m OK with that. It just seems like a lot of people don’t get it, don’t understand it. By the way, nobody really does.”

But the trade association leader told the business owners there were many unknowns about the consequences of defying the closure order, and he had no intention of giving them a specific recommendation one way or another. These consequences could include the loss of a liquor license, a buyer’s card or both.

Scott Lorentz (center) speaks to a crowd Friday, May 15, at his business, JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison, about the possibility of reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's closure orders. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
Scott Lorentz (center) speaks to a crowd Friday, May 15, at his business, JJ's Birds Nest in Garrison, about the possibility of reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's closure orders. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“At some point I’m assuming they’re going to want to make an example,” Chesak said. “If you want to do this to force the governor’s hand to open up sooner, it’s not going to happen, and I think you’re all aware of that. … The biggest fear from this whole thing, believe the hype or not, is if you were to close again.”

Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort in Garrison, said she felt confident after speaking with Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard that his deputies would not issue citations to businesses themselves but didn’t know what to expect from the state licensing and enforcement divisions.

“How does the state step in and where does the state step in if they’re mad at us for opening a week and a half early to flex some muscle and give us crap about our liquor license or health code?” Eno said. “How does that happen? Who tracks it? When do they get involved? … Our sheriff’s department is not going to flex any muscle.”

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Goddard confirmed he intended to educate any businesses reported for violations, rather than be punitive. But, he noted, there are many other layers of enforcement and regulation over which he has no control.

“It’s multi-faceted, and taken at face value when it comes down to it, we as law enforcement are not the ones who have the final say,” Goddard said, noting the county attorney’s office, city prosecutor, state agencies and even the attorney general’s office through civil means could all take action.

It wasn’t clear whether any of those who attended Friday’s meeting have specific plans to reopen by Memorial Day weekend. Lorentz said he and his wife haven’t yet decided.

“There’s no great answer to this,” he said while watching a flock of pelicans fish in Borden Lake. “It’s just at some point, we need to start moving forward, or we aren’t going to be here.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.