Bars and restaurants fume at continued indoor dining ban; some pledge to defy order

People sit and stand at a bar.
The bar at Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville, Minn., is standing-room only Wednesday after reopening in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s orders banning indoor service at bars and restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune

Updated: 3:25 p.m.

Lake Elmo Inn owner John Schiltz has a simple message for Gov. Tim Walz:

“We’re hanging on by a thread.”

And Schiltz says he knows his business is not alone. The holidays are usually busy for places like his inn. Money made this time of the year is critical to their finances. Schiltz said he should be allowed to reopen safely.

A man in a chef's shirt and face mask stands outside a business
Lake Elmo Inn owner John Schiltz is not happy about the extension banning indoor service. "We’re hanging on by a thread,” Schiltz said.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“We have to shut down when we have the protocols in place, we have the sanitation, we have the safety precautions in place and are doing them,” Schiltz said.

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He thinks bar and restaurant operators who did not follow safety rules when they were allowed to reopen earlier this year are largely to blame this extended closure.

“They were the renegades,” Schiltz said. “They’re the one that forced the governor’s hand and that’s unfair and those people should be paying a price if they want to break the law.”

About 100 hospitality businesses have pledged to defy the order to remain closed. The Lake Elmo Inn is not one of them. Bogart’s Entertainment Center in Apple Valley is.

“I just don’t have any choice,” co-owner Alan Loth said. “It’s either that or go bankrupt.”

Bogart's offers bowling, live music, food and drinks and space for wedding receptions and other group gatherings. Loth is furious with the shutdown extension. 

Other establishments that have opened despite the shutdown order have faced steep penalties including the suspension of liquor licenses.

On Wednesday night, the state said it intends to suspend liquor licenses for two spots — Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton — that reopened in defiance of the current order, for 60 days, pending a hearing before an administrative law judge. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Thursday filed cases against the two taverns, seeking to close the rogue operators during the indoor dining ban and force them to pay restitution and other penalties.

People at a bar hold glasses of beer.
Dean Wedul (right of center) lifts his drink with friends at Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville Wednesday.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune

"Most bars and restaurants are playing by the rules and following the law. Those that have chosen not to comply are putting the health of the community at risk, and we will hold them accountable,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington in a news release.

Also Wednesday, the Department of Health said Mission Tavern in Merrifield is facing a $10,000 fine and license suspension for offering indoor service twice since Walz's November order went into effect. The Health Department said it had issued two cease-and-desist orders already.

Loth is betting that joining with dozens of other businesses in defying the order will give him cover.

“I may be only open for a day or two — who knows?” Loth said. “But I have to do something, and the coalition seemed to be to me the way to go with a little bit of strength in numbers.”

Loth said it makes no sense that bars and restaurants can’t welcome customers when so many other businesses can. Both Loth and Schiltz also note many Minnesotans are now crossing state borders to spend their money on food and drink.

“You know you drive 40 minutes to Wisconsin, you can do whatever you want. All our money is going over to Wisconsin,” Loth said.

Liz Rammer, the head of Hospitality Minnesota, is already urging Walz to reverse his decision. She said businesses will fail if he does not.

“It’s absolutely going to kill off some,” Rammer said. “They’re hanging by a thread now.”

Rammer and the people she represents insist bars and restaurants can operate safely and were never a big source of COVID-19 outbreaks.

As for protest movement to reopen despite the order, Rammer said businesses that break the law do so at their own risk. She said she understands their frustration.

“Many of these businesses are literally on the cliff and what you see with this kind of activity is more and more businesses are desperate,” Rammer said.

Unlike restaurants and bars, some businesses got a break in the latest state order. Walz is allowing fitness centers to reopen albeit at reduced capacity. 

A man in a black shirt.
Ryan Avery runs Hybrid Farm Fitness in St. Cloud, Minn., with his wife.
Courtesy of Ryan Avery

It's welcome news to Ryan Avery who, with his wife, owns Hybrid Farm Fitness in St. Cloud.

"Honestly, it was a relief," Avery said.

Avery says his business will be in a much better position now that he's allowed to reopen even if he has to manage at reduced capacity.

"It's enough for us to get up and running again and we're pretty excited," he said.