ST. CLOUD, Minn. (CN) — A Minnesota judge issued a restraining order Monday against a bar owner who promised to open his six locations this week in defiance of the governor’s order closing bars and restaurants across the state.
Kris Schiffler owns six bars around central Minnesota under the brand Shady’s and promised to open all six of them this week despite Democratic Governor Tim Walz’s order restricting restaurants to delivery and pick-up service until June 1 to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Schiffler announced Sunday on Facebook that his flagship bar, Shady’s Hometown Tavern in Albany, would open Monday, but staff at the bar confirmed Monday that they would not be reopening.
In a complaint filed Sunday in Stearns County District Court, Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office sought fines of $25,000 per violation of the order, which Walz first issued March 16 and has since extended through May 31. Ellison also sought a temporary restraining order against Shady’s, which Judge William Cashman issued late Monday morning.
Schiffler had gone back and forth on his planned reopening day, but announced a Monday opening for one location followed by five Wednesday openings after a GoFundMe campaign for legal funds raised over $125,000 on Sunday. The fund had passed the $200,000 mark early Monday afternoon.
In a video announcing the Monday opening, Schiffler said Shady’s would be taking social distancing measures and using the funds to pay for an attorney and challenge the order statewide. Schiffler is represented by attorney Gary Leistico of local firm Rinke Noonan.
Leistico said Monday afternoon that Ellison’s action had taken him by surprise.
“I understand their concern for expeditedness [sic] with this, but I don’t understand their concern for ex parte,” he said. “We got no notice on this. Had I not been made aware by Facebook, I’m not sure that I would have been noticed on this.”
He added that he and his clients were looking at filing a separate action before the case’s first hearing, which is scheduled for Friday.
“It’s extreme frustration and desperation, like a lot of outstate and metro area businesses,” Leistico said. “They get the reality of the thing, they’re not trying to buck the system, that’s not what this is about. This is just small business owners trying to make a living and trying to follow the rules.”
May has seen a sharp uptick in Covid-19 cases in Minnesota, with over 6,000 new cases so far this month. Four Shady’s locations are located in Stearns County, a coronavirus hot spot. The county, home to the small city of St. Cloud, had 1,740 confirmed cases as of Monday morning, the second-highest in the state. Stearns County is the seventh-largest county in Minnesota, with a population of 159,000 in 2018.
Confirmed cases in Stearns County rose sharply at the beginning of the month, from 55 at the end of April to 1,161 May 7, apparently boosted by outbreaks at two poultry plants.
“Despite these troubling figures, defendant Schiffler has publicly stated that ‘you have a better chance of getting eaten by a timber wolf or a grizzly bear than getting Covid-19,’” the attorney general’s lawsuit states.
Schiffler has publicly gone back and forth on whether and when he would be opening his bars, courting public controversy all the way. He first announced plans to open all six restaurants Monday on May 12, and confirmed those plans to Ellison’s office May 16, according to the complaint.
Later that day, Schiffler shifted his opening date to this Wednesday, saying he wanted to be compliant with a safety plan from Walz that is due out May 20. He set the Shady’s Hometown Tavern opening for Monday after Ellison’s office filed the complaint Sunday.
“Our attorney’s fight right now is to get rid of the whole thing, not just bars and restaurants. We’re talking salon owners, and houseboat owners, and resort owners. Every kind of small business,” he said in a Facebook video. “These businesses can’t wait anymore, guys.”
“The vast majority of Minnesota’s bar and restaurant owners are doing the safe, lawful, and right thing during this crisis by keeping their doors closed, while still serving customers as allowed through take-out and drive-up. As hard as it is for them — and I know it’s hard — they’re doing their part to stop the spread of Covid-19,” he said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
The attorney general said Schiffler had “declared his intention to break the law and endanger his customers and employees.”
“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,” Ellison said.
Minnesota Republicans widely criticized Ellison’s move, with some GOP state lawmakers penning an open letter Sunday in response to the lawsuit.
“We would like to think the attorney general’s office has better things to do than to financially punish people who have gone without a paycheck for nearly two months,” the letter said.
“For two months, our Main Streets have been barren,” it continued. “The reality is, when a Main Street business in rural Minnesota shuts down, it never reopens. When they are forced into closure by their state government, the likelihood increases that their closure will be permanent.”