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Minnesota settles lawsuit against Monticello cafe that violated COVID-19 restrictions

By James Walsh, Star Tribune

If he had a more robust bank account, Greg Ashfeld said Tuesday, he might still be defying state orders meant to fight COVID-19 by limiting the number of customers he can serve at his cafe.

But he doesn’t. So he’s settled a lawsuit filed by the state against his establishment.

“My pockets aren’t deep enough to fight the system,” said Ashfield, who owns the Cornerstone Cafe in Monticello, Minn. “I don’t have the funds to do it.”

The state Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday announced the settlement with the cafe, which had defied  Gov. Tim Walz’s order that closed bars and restaurants to in-person business through Jan. 10 by staying open. Ashfeld will pay $10,000 to the state — his profits from staying open — and promises to fully comply with all current and future executive orders.

Ashfeld faces a civil penalty of $25,000 if he violates any of the terms of the settlement, according to the Attorney General’s Office. All money received from the settlement goes to the state’s general fund.

“I thank this establishment for agreeing to meet its responsibility to help all Minnesotans stop the spread of COVID-19 and congratulate it on rejoining the vast majority of Minnesota bars and restaurants that are already doing so,” Attorney General Ellison said in a statement.

“It brings me no joy to bring enforcement actions, because our top priority has always been education and voluntary compliance and enforcement has always been a last resort,” Ellison said. “Today’s settlement can be a sign to the very small handful of establishments that are violating the executive orders that compliance is still available to them.”

Cornerstone Cafe was one of several Minnesota businesses that refused to comply with Walz’s order and were sued by Ellison.

Responding to a spike in COVID-19 cases statewide, Walz issued an order Nov. 18 prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving customers indoors.

On Dec. 19, Walz tweaked the restrictions to allow those establishments to provide  limited outdoor dining, but indoor dining remained closed. As of Monday, bars and restaurants could once again provide indoor service — but at 50% capacity.

Ellison’s office sued Cornerstone Dec. 18 and obtained a temporary restraining order against the cafe Dec. 22. Given a choice, Ashfeld said Tuesday, he’d still be fighting to stay fully open. That’s because even having half his usual number of customers isn’t sustainable long-term.

“Not without state help,” he said. “And that’s not what I want anyway. I just want a chance to run my business.”