ST. PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Thursday, Dec. 17, filed lawsuits against two businesses alleging that they'd violated state orders prohibiting restaurants and bars from service onsite food or beverages.
Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton were among dozens of businesses that threatened to open their doors in violation of the executive orders. And on Wednesday they served dozens of customers at each restaurant despite the prohibition aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
When staff at each business were notified by law enforcement that they were operating in violation of the law, they said they were aware and planned to continue, according to news release from the attorney general's office.
“I know it’s tough out there for businesses and employees and help is already on the way — but what these establishments are doing is wrong. Not just wrong in breaking the law — wrong in exposing their loved ones, their customers, their employees, their communities, and potentially every Minnesotan to COVID-19. People will get sick, and some will die, because they’re breaking the law,” Ellison said. “The businesses we’re holding accountable today know what they need to do to comply with the law and instead, they’re flouting it.”
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Ellison in his lawsuits against the businesses asked that the court stop the owners from violating or threatening to violate the executive orders and sought restitution for the state. He also requested civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each violation or threatened violation of the order.
Gov. Tim Walz's recent extension of coronavirus-related business closures, as well as Ellison's enforcement of the laws, have sparked a new round of political fighting between the executive branch and Republican state legislators. State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, at a Thursday news conference was joined by business owners who said the executive orders are crushing them.
Gazelka issued a warning to Ellison: The Legislature "holds the purse strings," and in 2021 will be writing a two-year budget for the state. That includes setting the budget for Ellison's office.
"We're going to look at how many $10,000 fines he inflicted upon these people that were absolutely desperate," he said. "And I'm going to expect that to come out of his budget."
Later in the day Thursday, Ellison also filed for a restraining order against Alibi Drinkery as owners continued operating despite the pending lawsuit. Owners of the Neighbors on the Rum restaurant closed voluntarily.
On Wednesday night, the businesses received notice from the Department of Public Safety that their liquor would be suspended for 60 days due to the intentional violations.
“Most bars and restaurants are playing by the rules and following the law," Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said in a news release Wednesday. "Those that have chosen not to comply are putting the health of the community at risk, and we will hold them accountable."
A handful of other restaurants and bars reportedly opened their doors early in an effort to publicly defy the governor and make up for lost revenues. Ellison his office continues to investigate other reports of businesses opening out of compliance with the law.
The "pauses" on indoor dining were set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, but Walz on Wednesday extended the closures through the new year citing ongoing concern about hospital capacity to accommodate patients with COVID-19. Walz also announced elementary schools could reopen for in-person learning next month and that restrictions on gyms, outdoor activity centers and social gatherings would be relaxed.
Health care practitioners and hospital groups applauded the decision, saying it would give them a bit of continued reprieve amid the continued tide of COVID-19 hospitalizations. But business groups, and in particular the hospitality sector, said the decision not to allow indoor dining would deal a critical blow.
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Forum News Service correspondent Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.