ST. PAUL — Attorney General Keith Ellison has filed a lawsuit against a chain of Minnesota bars which vowed to reopen on Monday, May 18, in violation of Gov. Tim Walz's coronavirus emergency executive orders.
According to a Sunday night news release from Ellison's office, the owner of Shady’s, which has locations in Albany, Burtrum, Cold Spring, New Munich, Rice, and St. Martin, has publicly stated as recently as Sunday that he plans to reopen his bars Monday. Walz recently relaxed his mandatory nonessential business closures for retail establishments, but restaurants and bars are not to open for in-person patrons for at least two more weeks.
Ellison's lawsuit lists Shady's owner Kris Schiffler as a defendant. Ellison's office said they told Schiffler that reopening early "would be both dangerous to the public health and in violation of (Walz's executive order)."
"Despite initially indicating agreement to delay opening, the owner again publicly stated today that he intends to defy the Governor’s Executive Order and reopen tomorrow despite the public-health risk," Ellison's office said Sunday night.
Under his enforcement authority, Ellison — as well as city and county attorneys — could fine business owners up to $25,000 if they reopen earlier than allowed. According to Ellison's office, this is the first enforcement action the attorney general has taken against a business owner since Walz's first executive orders went into effect in March.
The lawsuit comes hours after dozens of Republican state legislators cosigned a letter to Ellison seeking clarification on how he plans to enforce Walz's executive orders against business owners, should they open early. They said small businesses are already reeling, and fines would pile on top of already economically difficult times.
Ellison said Sunday night that the "vast majority" of Minnesota bars and restaurants have followed Walz's orders and "(done) their part to stop the spread of COVID-19" by serving customers strictly by take-out and delivery.
But, he said "a handful" have indicated that "they don't want to wait any longer and want to reopen illegally." Ellison said his office has "reached out to them to try to educate them on their rights and responsibilities under the law and the risks to Minnesotans’ health of reopening illegally. In almost all cases, owners have agreed to comply with the law."
Ellison then pointed to Shady's owner Schiffler specifically: “The owner of Shady’s, however, has declared his intention to break the law and endanger his customers and employees — in Stearns County, with the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota. My office has the duty to enforce the law and the Governor’s order, to protect Minnesotans’ health, and to protect businesses that are complying with the order from unfair competition. I take that duty seriously."
The six Shady's locations in question are located in or near Stearns County, which has emerged as a hotspot in the state. As of Sunday, per state Department of Health data, over 1,700 residents of Stearns County have tested positive for the virus. Ellison's office said its positive cases per capita rate is 2.5 times higher than Hennepin County's, and 3.5 times higher than Ramsey County's: the two most populous counties of the state.
Per Ellison's Sunday news release, Schiffler has said, "You have a better chance of getting eaten by a timber wolf or a grizzly bear than getting COVID-19.”
As of Sunday night, a GoFundMe was live claiming to raise funds to cover the chain's potential fines should they reopen all six locations Monday: up to $25,000 per location. The fundraiser's goal was $100,000, and as of Sunday at 10:30 p.m., it was still collecting donations as it surpassed $169,000. A Facebook page for the bar posted on May 7 the bar's plans to reopen Monday at noon.
In their Sunday afternoon letter, legislators said that small businesses are facing economic hardship, potentially permanent closure, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting executive orders, which were intended to slow the spread of the deadly virus. Some rural business owners "can no longer wait" and plan to reopen early with safety precautions in place.
"At a time when the federal government is trying desperately to help our businesses, it appears our Attorney General's office is threatening to keep them down," they wrote.
The legislators then threatened to cut funding from the Attorney General's Office in future budget cycles, if Ellison indeed fines small business owners.
"If true, that is certainly within your jurisdiction," they continued. "And as state lawmakers, it is also within our jurisdiction to keep tabs on the fines you place on the rural business owners who are facing bankruptcy, and to remember that amount the next time we are setting a budget for the Attorney General's Office."
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, who led legislators' Sunday letter, said later that night that Ellison's lawsuit was "truly appalling" and "government overreach in the extreme."
"Businesses have followed the governor's mandates for months now, and many have been driven to the point where they'll never open their doors again," Kresha said. "The fact that our state's top lawyer is trying to sue a business out of existence is unacceptable."