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Minnesota’s top attorney sues bars that defied restrictions

MINNEAPOLIS — Two Minnesota bars are facing lawsuits from the state attorney general’s office and suspensions of their liquor licenses after serving customers indoors in defiance of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order banning indoor service at bars and restaurants to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Thursday that his office has filed lawsuits against the Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton in Dakota County and Mille Lacs County District Courts, respectively. The lawsuits are in response to the establishments opening up for large crowds on Wednesday. In the lawsuits, Ellison’s office asks the courts for restitution and fines of up to $25,000 for violating the executive order.

After Alibi Drinkery said it would continue to offer indoor service, Ellison sought a court order that would force the bar to comply.

“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 statement. “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.”

State public safety officials also announced late Wednesday that the two businesses will lose their liquor licenses for 60 days pending a hearing before a judge.

More than 100 businesses have vowed to stay open in spite of the restrictions on bars and restaurants, which the governor extended through Jan. 11 on Wednesday. The Alibi Drinkery announced on Facebook on Thursday that the bar will again open for indoor service, claiming their liquor license is still valid because the hearing has not yet happened.

Ellison said Thursday evening that he has filed a request for a temporary restraining order against Alibi, asking a court to order the bar to stop violating the governor’s order. Ellison argued that “immediate and irreparable injury” would result if Alibi continued to offer indoor service while awaiting a hearing in the lawsuit.

Ellison’s office said Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton has since voluntarily complied with the executive order.

Minnesota GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka held a press conference Thursday afternoon alongside several restaurant owners to ask Walz to allow restaurants and bars to open for indoor service. Gazelka called the extension of the executive order the “nail in the coffin” for businesses struggling to survive during the shutdown.

Business owners disagreed with state health officials’ assessment that restaurants and bars contribute to worsening community spread of the virus and emphasized the negative impact of the closures on their employees and their families.

“We take care of people, and at this level now it is so crushing,” said Janis Quinlan-Guerin, owner of Quinny’s Sports Pub and Grill in Mahtomedi. “Being a family-run business, my son is my manager and to see him and what it has done to him emotionally is so difficult as a mother.”

During the press conference, Gazelka said businesses defying the executive order are doing so out of desperation. The Republican senator threatened to cut the budget of the attorney general’s office for imposing fines on establishments that defy the order and serve customers indoors.

“I want to remind (Ellison) that next year, we set a two-year budget and the legislative branch sets his budget,” he said. “We’re going to look at how many $10,000 fines he’s inflicted on these people that are absolutely desperate, and I’m going to expect that to come out of his budget.”

The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported 2,775 confirmed new infections and said 83 more people have died of complications due to COVID-19. The state’s totals now stand 389,171 cases and 4,658 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

While case growth has somewhat declined in recent weeks, daily deaths have climbed. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Minnesota has risen over the past two weeks from more than 45 deaths per day on Dec. 2 to nearly 67 per day on Dec. 16, according to the COVID Tracking Project.