Court orders issues $9K fine against The Interchange; criminal charges filed

Published 8:34 pm Thursday, January 28, 2021

A Freeborn County District Court judge issued a $9,000 fine Thursday against The Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro, which has been at the center of a state lawsuit for violating state executive orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The fine was for failing to comply with the court’s Jan. 8 order that found the restaurant in contempt of court for violating a temporary restraining order and imposed a fine of $3,000 per day it continues to violate or threaten to violate state executive orders. 

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said on Wednesday The Interchange publicized on Facebook it would host an event on Friday that will violate Executive Order 21-01, which mandates that bars, restaurants and performance venues close for indoor, on-premises consumption of food and beverages by 10 p.m. and requires that restaurants only admit dine-in customers with reservations. 

The Facebook post described the event, which starts at 9 p.m., as having free food, free beverage and live music in a “Nail it to The Walz Reopen MN Party.” The post said the restaurant had recently received a COVID-19 business relief stimulus check from the state. 

“Where does this money come from?” it stated. “From you and me, the taxpayers. I don’t want to take your hard earned cash, so we’re giving it back in the only way we know how. Free food, beverage and live music … Not taking reservations. Come and have a great time with family and friends.”

The Attorney General’s Office stated for threatening to violate the executive order, The Interchange is in contempt of court. The $9,000 in fines is from when the party was first announced through the day of the event. 

During the hearing, Freeborn County District Court Judge Ross Leuning also converted his prior temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction, which requires The Interchange to fully comply with any and all current and future executive orders relevant to bars and restaurants for the duration of the state’s litigation against it. 

“It’s sad to see an establishment with so little concern for the health of its customers, employees and community,” Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a press release. “More than 2,500 households in Freeborn County alone have been hurt by the deadly COVID-19 virus — and as the number continues to rise, this establishment keeps breaking the law and the executive orders that are designed to prevent suffering and death. I will not hesitate to continue to use all the tools I have to keep Minnesotans safe.”  

The hearing was held without The Interchange owner Lisa Hanson, who was not allowed past the lobby of the Law Enforcement Center by Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office deputies without a face mask or face shield. 

Leuning said the county has established rules for wearing masks in the courthouse, and Hanson should be expected to honor those rules. He said Hanson’s refusal to wear a mask caused her own inability to attend the hearing.

 

Owner facing criminal charges for violating executive order

Hanson is also facing six misdemeanor criminal charges for allegedly violating state emergency orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

After coming to the courthouse to appear on the state civil case, and later agreeing to wear a face shield to attend the hearing, the hearing had already concluded. She said she then found out she had a second hearing and was being charged with six misdemeanor criminal counts for violating the emergency orders. 

The court complaint referenced four enforcement checks in mid- to late December, in which inspectors and agents observed people sitting indoors consuming food or beverages. It also talked about a couple posts on The Interchange’s Facebook page, including live videos, that documented patrons sitting at tables in the restaurant, as well as reports by local television stations that showed the same images. 

During what had been scheduled as an arraignment on the charges, also in front of Leuning, Hanson said she had not received a copy of the charges ahead of time. After reviewing the charges during a 15-minute recess from the court, she asked that she officially be arraigned on a separate date.

Leuning tried to set the new arraignment for Friday, but there were scheduling conflicts between Hanson and City Attorney Kelly Martinez. Hanson said she was scheduled to work until 3 p.m. and Martinez said she was not available after that time. 

Martinez said many other defendants also often have work conflicts and said she was concerned Hanson was getting different treatment than others defendants. She said she thought Hanson was trying to delay the proceedings. 

Martinez began to talk about the impact COVID-19 has had nationwide, on a state level and at the local level, when Leuning said he had read many of the similar statistics from the Attorney General’s Office court filings and asked that Martinez submit the remainder of her comments regarding the COVID-19 impact through a written argument. 

The city attorney asked the court to approve $2,000 unconditional bail for Hanson for each of the charges or a $1,000 conditional bail option with conditions, including that she agree to obey the law, comply with executive orders, abide by all cease-and-desist orders, and submit a COVID-19 preparedness plan for her business. 

In response, Hanson said she had been in the area for 25 years and described herself as a “God-fearing, hardworking American citizen” who has done nothing but good for society and the community. 

Leuning ultimately ordered Hanson pay either $1,000 unconditional bail or be released without bail and promise to remain law abiding and make future court appearances. 

Hanson said she intended to pay the $1,000 unconditional bail option. 

At the end of the hearing, Martinez said she intended to file a motion to remove Leuning from the case. She declined to comment further after the hearing. 

Leuning set Hanson’s new arraignment date to 11 a.m. Feb. 4 with Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab. 

The misdemeanor charges each carry a maximum penalty of 90 days in prison and a $1,000 fine. 

After the hearing, Hanson said the matter is one of Constitutional rights and said she will continue to fight for those rights, not only for herself but for others across the state and nation. She said she is still considering her Friday plans.