Business & Economy

Minnesota bars' licenses suspended for defying restrictions

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: 7 p.m.

Minnesota’s attorney general sued two taverns Thursday for opening their doors to in-person service in defiance of restrictions from Gov. Tim Walz.

The new cases filed against Alibi’s Drinkery in Lakeville, Minn., and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton, Minn., are in addition to the state’s intention to suspend the liquor licenses of both for two months. 

They were among the restaurants to open this week despite ongoing orders to stay closed out of public health concerns during the pandemic. The restrictions on indoor service, which were set to expire Friday, will now run through Jan. 10, which hospitality industry officials will push some establishments out of business for good.

Attorney General Keith Ellison’s actions seek to close the rogue operators during the indoor dining ban, force them to pay restitution and other penalties. He said their operations pose health risks and are unfair to businesses complying with the rules.

“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,” Ellison said in a news release. “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.” 

The Princeton bar owner, Joe Holtz, said he opened one of his three locations on Wednesday while keeping safety precautions in mind. 

“We’re safe people. We do everything right. We mask up. We sanitize. We have laminated menus. We use all the right products for safety protocols. We do everything in our possible creation right,” Holtz said Thursday. “And you tell me I can’t let my people make money. You’re going to take livelihoods away from people at Christmas time?”

He said he couldn’t stay closed any longer.

“I’m done,” Holtz said. “I’m going to fight for my employees, my business, my life, my family.”

But the Princeton restaurant was closed Thursday after a visit from health inspectors who were accompanied by a police officer.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, threatened Thursday to apply whatever fines Ellison helps levy against his office budget when it’s up for approval next year.

He urged the attorney general and Walz to relent.

“We have heard the cries in the last 24 hours,” Gazelka said. “This last executive order is the last straw.”

Gazelka held a Capitol news conference where he was joined by restaurant owners from around the state, including Jeff LaBeau, the owner of the Depot Bar and Grill in Faribault, Minn.

“I feel like I’m on the Titanic and this governor is making us a third-class citizen that has to be in the bottom of the ship. So he wants to drown us,” LaBeau said, adding that he’s borrowed against his retirement fund to keep his business open.

Tony Chesak, director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, an industry group that represents bars, restaurants and liquor stores throughout the state, was asked if the group backs the restaurants opening in violation of the state order.

“When times get tough and things get desperate, people do things to keep themselves above the water line,” Chesak said. “And do I blame these folks? No I don’t blame these folks.”

Alibi’s co-owner Lisa Monet Zarza told KARE 11 she expected to face sanctions that she intends to contest it.

"I put a big fat bullseye on our back for a reason, because I know they're going to come after every single business anyways, and I wanted to make sure I had thousands of supporters here," she said.

At a meeting of state officials early Thursday, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said those disregarding the rules are the exception, adding that “it’s important to recognize how many businesses there are who are following those guidelines.”