AG Ellison: 'Nobody wants to push anybody to close'

A man wearing a suit and face mask walks out of a building
Attorney General Keith Ellison walks out of the Family Justice Center to speak to the media Sept. 11 in downtown Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Dozens of bars and restaurants across Minnesota are openly defying Gov. Tim Walz’s ban on indoor dining and drinking. Many say they have nothing to lose as they've been bleeding money for months. In response, the state is ramping up its efforts to squash what seems like a growing rebellion.

Attorney General Keith Ellison announced two new lawsuits Thursday against bars in Lakeville and Princeton that opened this week to large crowds. Those bars face big fines and a yanking of their liquor licenses.

One of the bar owner said, that's fine. She'll see the state in court. MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Ellison Friday on Morning Edition.

The following transcription is lightly edited. Listen to the conversation with the audio player above.

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How many bars and restaurants at this point are you aware of that are openly defined the state's order?

I think we're around seven, but some of those have actually come into compliance since we filed a lawsuit. Others we're going to see in court, but I just want to be clear, overwhelmingly, people are complying.

You know, Minnesota has over 10,000, restaurants, 1,500 bars. We've only had to make a limited number of calls. And in those cases where we engage in voluntary compliance, we've only had to actually sue less than less than 10.

I wish we didn't have to sue those folks, those seven or eight people. But the real story is that most people are observing the executive orders because they know that they're concerned about the lives and safety and health of their patrons, workers and everybody else.

Some of those that are still open, though, are getting all the headlines and getting evidently some pretty big crowds. Are some of the businesses figuring, “What the heck, let's stay open until we get an administrative hearing,” which I'm thinking, you know, wouldn't come for quite some time. Right? Is there an issue with a lag time between the state saying you’ve got to close and actual closure?

That might be the case. But the truth is, it's a short term effort, but with very negative long term consequences. Some of the people who they attract to their establishment will get sick, and some of those people might die. And I really don't want that to happen.

Across America we've seen 307,000 Americans die because of COVID. Minnesota, every day the numbers look like 70, 80, 85, one day 92. The numbers, they’re actually slightly coming down, but we’re still in a very dangerous zone.

So I tell people, “Don't worry about what the attorney general is gonna do, worry about what coronavirus is going to do. Coronavirus is going to take loved ones, precious loved ones from you.”

So, you know, they can try to do what they are doing. I am going to enforce the law. But I would hate the price that they may have to pay, and the most severe price will not be from the state. It will be from the virus.

Joe Holz owns Neighbors On The Rum in Princeton, one of the two bars you filed suit against yesterday, he says he’s simply out of options. So the question is, where does the line fall between policing those who are not toeing the line and not pushing financially vulnerable businesses into closure?

Well, nobody wants to push anybody into closure. We want everybody to be successful and to thrive. But we're looking at the science, we're looking at the people who are experts in public health. And they're the ones helping us craft the executive orders that are designed to protect life, health and safety. And so that's why you've seen some of the executive orders actually ease up a bit because, you know, the science is allowing us to do that.

But no, this is a very sad situation. It is true that the small businesses have a burden. I'm not going to deny that it's true, but the threat of coronavirus is even greater. And last time I looked at the news — which was very recently — both the state and Congress are trying to get assistance to small businesses to help bridge them from this moment to a better one.

Those measures I think will be helpful. And of course we know the vaccine is already beginning to be rolled out. So there is hope at the end of the tunnel, but for the moment, the threat of coronavirus is just too dangerous. So we're asking people to comply with the executive orders.

For the businesses that decide not to, they're going to be hit possibly with some pretty hefty fines. They could lose their liquor licenses. I also see that you're seeking disgorgement among the relief. Does that mean the state could seize profits from the restaurants and bars that are open illegally?

It is possible. And let me help you understand why. As I mentioned in the beginning of the show, literally thousands and thousands of restaurants and bars are complying. Is it right that another business who doesn't want to follow the rules can benefit and advantage themselves at the expense of people who are obeying the rules? That's not right.

I mean, if a business says "Look, it is hurting us to close, but for the sake of our workers, our customers and others, we're going to comply with the law." And somebody else across the street opens up and says, "We don't care what the law says." Is it right that should happen?

Let me also point this out, because this is important. It is a judge who ultimately decides these issues. We have an independent judiciary, which makes decisions about these matters. What the attorney general's office does, is bring forth cases, when we believe there's credible evidence of a violation and the court is the one that ultimately decides.

Now, the court has a number of remedies available to try to gain compliance. And that's one of them. But the fact is, all we want is compliance. We're not trying to bring people to court if we don't have to, we've only had to bring about seven cases. That's a lot. But it's actually small in comparison to the number of people who are complying.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka suggested [Thursday] that he wanted to see cuts to your office's budget equal to those fines on businesses. What do you think about that?

We'll deal with the budget at budget time. For now, I'm trying to save the lives of Minnesotans. Peggy Flanagan, our lieutenant governor’s brother is lost to her. She’s never going to be able to hug him again, because he died of coronavirus. Ilhan Omar’s father died. I have had personal family members lost to me. And guess what, thousands of Minnesotans have to. We're trying to prevent that. And that's all we're trying to do.

Final question. The businesses I referred to earlier, the one in Lakeville, and one in Princeton. I know you asked for a temporary restraining order to shut them down. Do you expect a decision soon?

Yes. And and I suspect we will be successful. We have not brought a case where we did not persuade the court to issue the temporary restraining order. We won every single case we've brought so far.

And that's another reason why we believe that we are making good cases, because if we bring in cases that were not supported by the facts and the law, the courts would not rule in our favor. But we've won every single case so far. To me, that indicates that the courts feel that these cases are supported by the law and the facts.