Judge upholds Minneapolis mayor's COVID vaccine mandate for bar, restaurant patrons

A man at a podium gestures.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks during a news conference in June 2021. A Hennepin County judge has upheld Frey's vaccine mandate for bar and restaurant patrons in the city.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 8:30 p.m.

A Hennepin County judge has upheld Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's vaccine mandate for bar and restaurant patrons, denying several business owners' request for a temporary restraining order against the measure.

The mandate that took effect this month requires customers to show proof of COVID vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test administered professionally within the last 72 hours.

A group of bar and restaurant owners — including the owners of Smack Shack and the downtown bars Gay 90’s and Sneaky Pete’s — filed suit against the mandate. They said they support vaccines, but argued that Frey doesn't have legal authority for such an order. They also said their staffs are not equipped to enforce the order.

In a ruling filed Friday night, Hennepin County District Judge Laurie Miller denied the businesses' request for a temporary restraining order against the mandate. The lawsuit continues through the courts.

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As to Frey's authority to issue such a mandate, Miller wrote that the businesses "have identified no instances in which Mayor Frey’s actions violated the letter of any state or municipal law." After Frey announced the policy, it was ratified by the City Council.

The judge also wrote that evidence presented by the business owners that their bars and restaurants were being harmed by Frey's policy was "speculative, and does not support the issuance of a (temporary restraining order)."

"The Court recognizes that the pandemic has had a devastating economic impact on bars and restaurants, but the City cannot be held responsible for general pandemic-related business losses," Miller wrote. "The Court commends Plaintiffs for their ability to continue operating through the pandemic. ... To the extent that sales may have dropped recently from one week to the next, however, Plaintiffs have not submitted evidence, other then their own opinions, to identify the reason for that drop in sales."

Miller also wrote that because bars and restaurants already have employees trained to check IDs for customers' ages, "checking to make sure patrons have either a vaccine card or a proof of testing is arguably just another compliance check process." She said the "economic harm feared by Plaintiffs does not outweigh the City’s documented public health concerns."

But in upholding the mandate, the judge said she "recognizes that plaintiffs face challenges in implementing a screening process at their establishments." She wrote that she expects the city to help businesses implement the policy, such as training for distinguishing real and fake vaccine cards.

In a statement issued Saturday, Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said "the city is pleased with Judge Miller’s decision in this case. At the end of the day, the city has been and continues to be focused on helping everyone in our community — residents and businesses — safely navigate this incredibly challenging time."

Jeffrey O'Brien, a lawyer for the business owners, said in a statement Saturday evening that his clients "are obviously disappointed in the court’s ruling."

"With due respect to the court, plaintiffs believe that the court should have focused more on the Minneapolis City Council declaring a continued emergency and departure from its own rules for the COVID-19 pandemic that has unfortunately been a part of our lives for nearly two years. The City Council has now extended this self-declaration of an emergency suspending its own democratic processes indefinitely," the statement said. "Moreover, the decisions of the council and the court come as COVID-19 rates continue to fall precipitously in the city of Minneapolis, while the harm to its restaurants and bars only continues to mount."

The lawsuit filed against Frey’s mandate does not challenge the vaccine mandate in St. Paul.