EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — A protest is set to happen in East Grand Forks on Jan. 9, but people likely won't take to the streets, they will sit in ice-fishing houses.
Justin LaRocque, owner of the Spud Jr. in downtown East Grand Forks, is organizing the event and made the announcement on his business’ social media page on Dec. 19. He is asking people to pay a $40 fee to set up an ice house or similar structure on Third Street Northwest, which runs alongside his shop, to protest Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s recent extension of COVID-19 orders that include the shutdown of hospitality businesses until Jan. 11. The funds will be split between the owners of the Boardwalk Bar and Gill and Joe’s Diner, which both reopened in defiance of the state order.
The announcement came the same day East-side Mayor Steve Gander, other state lawmakers and few residents gathered at the Spud Jr., for morning drinks, after Walz allowed restaurants and bars to serve people outside.
“We want to see as many as we can,” said LaRoque, in the video announcement of the protest. “It’s going to be peaceful; it’s going to be more of a sit-in because let’s face it, it’s probably going to be 20 below zero, so we’re not going to want to be outside. Bring your generators, heat your unit, bring an appropriate amount of people with you. We still need to be safe; we are still in a situation where precautions need to be taken, but come help support the hospitality industry.”
The protest is also meant as a criticism of a $242 million aid package for businesses and workers Walz signed into law on Dec. 15. That package makes available $88 million dollars in direct payments to restaurants, bars and other businesses that had a 30% loss in sales in the last half of 2020, compared to the previous year. But LaRocque said the bill was drafted without enough outside input, and some businesses will fall through the cracks and not be eligible.
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Specifically, the law require those businesses to have had at least $10,000 in taxable sales in 2019, which means new businesses, such as the Spud Jr. and Joe’s Cafe, both of which opened in 2020, are not eligible. The law also requires business owners to have filed sales tax returns in 2019 and 2020, but LaRocque said the drop in business caused by the coronavirus pandemic means some shop owners have fallen behind in those filings.
Those businesses, he said, should still be allowed to receive the remainder of the aid the state offered to them, less what a business owes in sales taxes.
“That's one less major bill that's now out the window so you can focus on the rest,” he said.
LaRocque has not yet secured a permit for the protest, but said the city council will decide on the matter in the first week of January, though he is confident it will be approved.
“I think the city officials know that the things that I do are done responsibly,” he told Forum News Service.
The protest is set for noon to 5 p.m. Jan. 9. LaRocque is asking people to reserve a spot, presumably by contacting the Spud. Jr. He is also asking those who attend to order a meal by delivery from an East Grand Forks restaurant.