Central Minnesota bar owner backs down, says he won't defy state order to remain closed

A man speaks on a megaphone to a crowd.
Shady's Hometown Tavern owner Kris Schiffler notifies the gathering of supporters and patrons that he will not be opening his Albany, Minn. establishment Monday as previously planned.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 3:05 p.m. | Posted: 7 a.m.

A central Minnesota bar owner who vowed to open his business Monday in defiance of state orders has relented, as Minnesota’s ongoing COVID-19 shutdown of bars, restaurants and other public accommodations is heading for a legal battle.

Kris Schiffler, who owns Shady’s Hometown Tavern, in Albany, Minn., and five other bars in the area, had been planning to open the tavern’s doors at noon Monday, a long line of customers at his door.

But instead he stepped out of the open doors of his restaurant with a bullhorn, telling the crowd he would comply with a judge’s ruling.

“I’m not standing out here in tears because I’m happy to open,” he said. “I’m standing out here in tears because the attorney general has just called, and they have shut us down.”

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A man wipes a tear from his face while speaking to a crowd.
An emotional Shady's Hometown Tavern owner Kris Schiffler notifies the gathering of supporters and patrons that he will not be opening his Albany, Minn. establishment Monday as previously planned on the advice of his attorney.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Stearns County Judge William Cashman granted Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s request for a restraining order Monday. The judge ordered Schiffler not to defy Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order that forbids in-person dining at state bars and restaurants.

“Don’t tell me this is about money,” Schiffler told the crowd gathered outside his bar. “This never has been about money. It’s about freedom. It’s about opening our bars, you guys. It’s about opening our restaurants, our salons.”

He handed out to-go menus to the crowd, and thanked them for their support, saying he’ll still need it.

“This is a fight for the small businesses," he said.

Minnesota’s 52-day stay-at-home order, put in place in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, expired Sunday night, but bars and restaurants are still required to offer takeout only. Schiffler said in a Facebook video posted Sunday that the hospitality industry has suffered enough during the pandemic. He’s raised nearly $175,000 on a GoFundMe site to challenge the state.

“We are using it for our attorney, but our attorney’s fight right now is to get rid of the whole thing, not just bars and restaurants,” Schiffler said in the video. “We’re talking salon owners, and houseboat owners and resort owners. Every kind of small business. These guys, everybody’s ready to go. We’re prepared.”

A line of people form around a restaurant.
Supports of Shady's Hometown Tavern line Railroad Ave. in Albany, Minn. in anticipation that owner Kris Schiffler would open his establishment Monday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Watching from across the street were Pete Desautel and Janet Desmarais of Albany, who own a car dealership in nearby Avon. They said they support Schiffler because the stay-at-home order was unfairly hurting small business owners.“

Either you close them all, or you open them all, period,” Desautel said. “You can’t let big-box stores and everybody else get rich during this while these guys are suffering.”

“I see every day multiple businesses choosing to close their doors because they cannot sustain [being closed],” Desmarais said. “And that’s what you hate seeing.”

Ellison asked in a Stearns County District Court filing for an emergency injunction and a $25,000 fine to prevent Schiffler from opening.

Stearns County has seen the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, behind only Hennepin County.

A statement issued by Ellison on Sunday said his office has already warned a handful of other bar owners not to defy the state’s order closing bars and restaurants.

Ellison said most have indicated they will comply.

“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,” Ellison said in the statement.

Republicans in the state House of Representatives sent Ellison a letter urging him not to fine people defying the order.

“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,” said the letter from Republicans, led by Rep. Ron Kresha, of Little Falls. The letter says lawmakers may consider deducting the proceeds of any fines from the attorney general’s budget the next time it comes before the Legislature.

A court hearing is scheduled for Friday in the case.