Full house as business owners urge Becker County commissioners to keep controversial resolution
“I warn you, if businesses are outlawed any longer, if people who choose to open their businesses in the model that provides enough revenue for them, continue to be seen as criminals, we will have an emergency,” said a woman at the Becker County Board meeting.
Becker County acted to amend a controversial resolution by removing a paragraph considered most likely to make the county liable for civil court damages.
Gym, restaurant and bar owners and employees were among the several dozen people that showed up at the County Board meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 15.
Robin Tate, an employee at Roasted in Detroit Lakes, urged commissioners to defend the Constitutional and Business Friendly Community resolution.
“I warn you, if businesses are outlawed any longer, if people who choose to open their businesses in the model that provides enough revenue for them, continue to be seen as criminals, we will have an emergency,” Tate said. “In fact, we already do, and it’s not a virus. It is the loss of businesses, jobs, and freedom. Small business owners and employees are losing everything,” she said to applause.
Dion Sgro, owner of Dion’s Dangerzone gym in Detroit Lakes, said the latest government-ordered shutdown of gyms came without warning. Exercise is a great stress reliever, and is needed for people’s mental health now more than ever, he said. “People need to learn to follow the rules, do it right, and if so, we should be able to open up,” he said. “You don’t make money off a gym anyway, you do it because it’s your passion,” he added. But the latest shutdown has been especially difficult, he said.
Robert Strand, who owns Snap Fitness in Detroit Lakes, said it was “a shot in the gut,” that the county spent the bulk of its federal COVID-relief funds on non-business needs like payroll and office renovation.
“It’s a joke,” he told commissioners. “You guys can do better. How can we adjust the rules to make sure we help business? I encourage you, in the future, to do better -- we deserve it.”
Rayna Tucker, owner of Sapphire restaurant in Detroit Lakes, said “we need to open back up -- the gyms, the restaurants … We did everything right in the beginning, the sanitizer, the masks, we just need to open back up.”
Warren Wermager said “I just want to support businesses in your area -- I’m really concerned about the governor shutting businesses down … a lawyer is always going to tell you there's risks. The government needs to step up and support the people. You don’t see that in Minnesota as much as in other states.”
Mike Williams, owner of Pit 611, asked commissioners for fewer restrictions in any new round of business-relief grants. “If we had PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money, we didn’t qualify for county help,” he said. “We were supposed to pay 70% to our employees, which we did.” He said it made no sense to exclude businesses based on prior PPP funding, because the programs were designed to do different things.
Nathan Francis, a bartender at Roasted, said he had to find work in Fargo just to get by. When gyms, bars and restaurants aren't open in Minnesota, people from the Detroit Lakes area go to Fargo instead, he said.
Brian Anderson of Detroit Lakes, who ran for state legislature this year on the Republican ticket, said Becker County is a border community. “People can go to North Dakota to Christmas shop, and have dinner and a drink afterwards if they want to,” he said. “Border communities need to consider what’s going on next to them and take that into consideration.”
Less business means less tax revenue for Minnesota government at all levels, Anderson added.
Detroit Lakes attorney David Stowman spoke at length via video conference call, urging commissioners to replace the Constitutional and Business Friendly Community resolution.
If the county encourages businesses to break the law by violating the state’s emergency shut-down measures, both the business and the county could be held liable in civil court, he warned. “If Becker County is encouraging a business to sell alcoholic beverages against state government rules, that business could have devastating consequences from this, and Becker County could be on the hook for potential liability,” he said.
The board is taking an unnecessary risk by keeping the controversial resolution, since it doesn’t protect businesses and mostly amounts to a political statement anyway, said Commissioner Barry Nelson.
“This has zero impact on what legal rights your business has or does not have,” he told the group. “Whatever we do here isn’t going to help or hinder you. We want to protect the county and county residents from liability issues. I would strike the line (in the resolution) that the county encourages businesses to reopen at their own risk.” The East Grand Forks bar that reopened against the state’s emergency order lost its liquor license for 60 days, he noted.
Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald added that “this resolution has been on the books for the last 25 days you folks have been shut down -- it can’t protect you from the Minnesota attorney general or the health inspector.”
Commissioner Larry Knutson took issue with Stowman telling the board that the resolution sets a bad example for children, since it encourages illegal conduct.
“I want my children to think of me as a patriot who stood up to a tyrant governor,” he said.
Commissioner Ben Grimsley also opposed changing the resolution in any way, and likened it to the original Tea Party act of defiance in Boston harbor. State Rep. Steve Green of Fosston was at the meeting, but did not speak. He has advocated for the resolution in the past.
Commissioner Don Skarie said he doesn’t like the situation either: His family catering business has seen a 50% drop in revenues due to COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. But the state Legislature has given Gov. Tim Walz the authority to do what’s necessary to protect Minnesotans during the pandemic. “We can’t do anything about that,” he said. “I wish we could, but we can’t.” He made a motion to repeal and replace the resolution, which died for the lack of a second.
Nelson then motioned to amend the existing resolution by removing the line about the county encouraging businesses to reopen at their own risk. That carried 3-2, with Skarie, John Okeson and Nelson voting for it, and Knutson and Grimsley voting against.