BRAINERD, Minn. — Two Minnesota business owners who’ve defied Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders limiting restaurant and bar operations say they’re evaluating legal options to push back on fines and license suspensions.
Jeff McCulloch, owner of Mission Tavern in Merrifield, Minn., said he is seeking to join legal forces with other bars and restaurants after the Minnesota Department of Health issued a $10,000 fine Tuesday, Dec. 15, and stated its intention to suspend the business’s food license in January. The fine and suspension came after McCulloch opened for indoor dining on two separate occasions — most recently on Dec. 11, which resulted in the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office showing up with a copy of the governor’s executive order. McCulloch said he’s since been notified by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Division of Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement of the impending suspension of his liquor license as well.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, McCulloch set up a GoFundMe page to solicit donations because he said several customers offered to do so themselves. As of Monday morning, Dec. 21, 123 donors had contributed a total of $12,665 toward a $100,000 goal. He said any funds not needed as part of the legal battle would go to charitable causes and he’ll be transparent about how the money is spent, including posting receipts.
“I’m trying to partner with other bars to just be like one big case so that we’re not all fighting it individually. I think that's the best way of going about it,” McCulloch said. “I will be fighting this right now. … I will not be paying the fine. I’m going to go to court for that and see how far I have to take it until they force me to pay it.”
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Duvall, co-owner of The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. in Lake Shore, Minn., said they’ve turned away donations and hope to not have to take any at all if they pursue legal action against the state. The health department revoked that business’ license after what it characterized as repeated violations throughout the summer, including a failure to follow the mask mandate and allowing indoor dining earlier this month. They also face a $9,500 fine.
Duvall said they’re taking their response day by day, and may possibly continue to open their doors despite currently not having a license. This, despite being a seasonal business that typically closes up shop in the winter months.
“At this time of year, we really have no reason to be open, other than to really stand up for other people that have businesses that should have the right to run their businesses right now. For us right now, it would benefit us just to be closed, and we do in typical years,” Duvall said during a Thursday, Dec. 17, interview.
But while owners of both businesses find themselves in similar positions and say they’re fighting for the rights of other business owners, their reasons for defying the mandates intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus differ.
Duvall outlined deeply held philosophical beliefs in favor of personal freedoms he said guided a number of business decisions in recent months. He said small businesses are being unfairly targeted due to an already established regulatory framework within the government, despite them not being the only source of viral spread.
“I personally just don't think that the government or anyone else should be, you know, trying to self-protect us constantly,” Duvall said. “You know, I just don't think that that’s where it needs to go. And I truly think that the numbers would be relatively the same, death-wise.”
McCulloch, however, said his decision to open for indoor dining despite the prohibition is motivated by the need to earn a living to pay his bills and help his employees.
“The only reason I'm opening up is because I'm running out of money, and nobody’s helping me, and my employees are running out of money, and nobody's helping them,” McCulloch said last week. “So I'm not doing it to be defiant. … I'm doing it to make a living and help my employees. That's the only reason.”
McCulloch said if the government had provided timely aid that could help businesses like his offset their tremendous losses resulting from the executive orders, he would never have opened his doors to diners and drinkers. He said he believes most business owners defying the governor’s orders are in the same position.
“The only reason they're willing to take the risk of a huge fine is because they're being pushed into a corner where they can't afford to not,” McCulloch said. “So if, you know, if they would have had financial aid earlier, or you know, more of it, I don't think we'd be in this situation. … I also made the choice to open up and put myself in this position and I knew that was the risk going into it, and I'm OK with that.”
Duvall, on the other hand, said he’s not interested in government aid.
“I don't believe in bailouts. I don't believe in welfare. Because the problem is the government wants to say, we need to get this money out to them. The government doesn't have money, the government doesn't make money,” Duvall said. “The government takes money from the people. It's the people's money, it's not the government’s. … So this idea that we need to get money from the federal government or the state is not what the free marketplace or a free country is supposed to be.”
State officials say they are taking punitive actions against businesses such as Duvall’s and McCulloch’s in part because it’s unfair to other businesses making sacrifices to follow the mandates.
“Most Minnesotans and Minnesota businesses are doing their best to follow best practices and do what’s in their power to help slow down the spread of the virus," Dan Huff, health department assistant commissioner, said in a news release announcing the enforcement actions against The Iron Waffle. "Consistent enforcement is an important fairness issue for the vast majority of businesses that are following COVID-19-related protocols,”
But Duvall and McCulloch don’t see it that way. Asked for a response to this point, Duvall said it isn’t unfair because that’s the point of a free marketplace.
“They’re supposed to choose how they want to design their business, how they want to lay it out, you know, everything about it,” he said.
“I’m not mad that Walmart's open, I’m not mad that Target’s open. I think they should be open. I think everyone should be open, and then people choose how they want to live their life and who to support.”
McCulloch said if the government was going to shut businesses down, it should’ve shut down everything, rather than picking and choosing.
“My response to that is they should never have shut us down to begin with,” he said. “They should either shut everybody down and lock everything down for a month, or let everybody stay open so they can make their own decisions. They're turning people against people. … You know, there shouldn't be one person who deems, you know, what's essential, what's not essential.”
Duvall expressed skepticism about the facts surrounding the coronavirus and how it is portrayed by the government and media, stating he believes it’s just another virus among many that shouldn’t require this type of response.
“There's nothing wrong with them giving us the information as Americans and allowing Americans to make their own choice. All these governors, all these doctors, all the politicians — they’re all humans, they're also free humans,” he said. “And if you don't think that people can make their own choices, why do you think you can make a choice for another?”
McCulloch said having contracted COVID-19 himself in August, he knows it’s real and people are getting sick, but restaurants, bars, fitness centers and bowling alleys aren’t the only source, he said.
“The people that are dying are mostly older people. If you're scared of it, don't come out, like you should stay home, you should do everything you possibly can do to keep yourself safe,” McCulloch said. “I thought I lived in a country that would mean you can make free choices and free enterprise. And people should be able to make their own choices to go where they want to go when they want to go there. I have never in my life ever force anybody to walk inside Mission Tavern. They all come there on their own free will.”
Of course, not everyone who’s contracted the disease caused by the coronavirus did so through choices of their own. Of the 4,723 deaths reported by the state as of Friday, Dec. 18, nearly two-thirds were among those living in skilled nursing facilities or other congregate care settings. Much of this is believed to have originated in asymptomatic spread from staff members or other caregivers, who themselves likely contracted the disease in the community.
“The government's already telling people that you can't go to a bar,” McCulloch said. “Why don't you tell, you know, nursing home workers that you can't go … to Fleet Farm?”