ST. PAUL — Minnesota business owners and church leaders on Monday, May 18, pushed back against state orders prohibiting bars, restaurants and houses of worship from reopening.
Minnesota's stay at home order lifted Monday, making way for the new "stay safe" order, which allowed for some businesses to reopen at half capacity and for Minnesotans to start gathering in groups smaller than 10 people. But it didn't clear the way for restaurants, bars, salons, gyms, churches or other large gathering places to come back online.
An Albany, Minn., bar called Shady's Hometown Tavern on Monday was prepared to open its doors at noon, but walked back the decision after Attorney General Keith Ellison late Sunday night Sunday filed a lawsuit against the bar's owners — the first enforcement action Ellison has taken against a Minnesota business since emergency orders first went into place in March.
Stearns County Judge William Cashman on Monday issued the bar owners a restraining order at Ellison's request and Kris Schiffler told hundreds of prospective patrons that the bar would remain closed. As of Monday afternoon, a GoFundMe claiming to raise funds to pay for the bar's legal fees has raised nearly $210,000 — more than double its original goal when it was created (before Ellison filed his lawsuit). Donations were still pouring in Monday at 5 p.m.
Also Monday, a group of Minnesota churches and small business owners that had sued the state in federal court over the stay at home order said it would file for a temporary restraining order to block enforcement around religious services.
“Governor Walz’s newest version of his unilateral emergency shutdown order continues to violate the First Amendment by treating religious organizations as second class citizens,” Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center, said in a news release. “While it will now be easy once again to go shopping for home furnishings or new clothes on a Sunday, you still are not allowed to attend church, temple or mosque, even though those religious organizations are able to comply with exactly the same public health guidelines."
Gov. Tim Walz said the rollback of restrictions was aimed at limiting the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths as the state slowly walks toward pre-pandemic normalcy. But he equated Minnesota's next steps to turning a dial, not flipping a switch back to pre-COVID times. He said businesses still ordered to remain closed are ones with less predictable environments, where social distancing guidelines are more difficult to follow.
“It just makes sense that if you’re a business owner, we want to make sure that when we open up again, you stay open," Walz told reporters. "We want to make sure you’re not put in a position where people are getting sick on your premises.”
Republican lawmakers have asked for leniency from Ellison and other law enforcement officials, saying restaurant and business owners opening in violation of the stay safe order likely were doing so out of financial desperation.
“If businesses are opening it’s because they are desperate,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. “If you’re going to open a business that you could risk everything — risk your license, risk your ability as a result of the attorney general weighing in with fines, penalties, whatever things he thinks he wants to inflict on them — he has to be very very careful. They’re at a place that they’re not going to make it. They’re taking a risk because if they don’t open up, they’re dead.”
The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday reported 705 new cases of COVID-19 from a day prior and nine new deaths, bringing the state's fatalities from the illness to 731. And state health officials said business owners and consumers should continue taking precautions as more sectors of the economy begin reopening.
They recommended that Minnesotans take a "belt and suspenders" approach, continuing to social distance and wear masks or face coverings in public or at small gatherings of less than 10 people, which are newly allowed starting Monday. They also encouraged Minnesotans who developed symptoms to be tested for COVID-19.
"It’s so very critical that when we are symptomatic with anything, we really really need to stay home and isolate," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "None of [the new guidance] means it's okay to go out into the community when you’re not feeling unwell, when you’re symptomatic."
Malcolm and Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann on Monday said the state had 400 contact tracers working to track the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and they hoped to grow their ranks to 1,400 before June 1, the target date to let restaurants and bars reopen.
As more businesses reopen and increase possible spaces for transmission of COVID-19, Ehresmann said state health officials would be looking for a bump in reported cases, but that would have to wait three weeks due to the illness' incubation period.