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Interchange owner facing 3 new criminal charges; MDH sues restaurant for operating without a license

The owner of The Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro in Albert Lea is facing three new criminal charges tied to alleged violations of state executive orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to six misdemeanor counts of violating an emergency powers or rule that were previously filed, Lisa Hanson now faces two additional counts of violating an emergency powers or rule, as well as one misdemeanor public nuisance charge. 

Hanson was arraigned on all nine charges on Thursday in a Zoom hearing in front of Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab. The hearing had over 80 participants.

Court documents reference enforcement checks in mid- to late December when restaurants were still closed for in-person dining, in which inspectors and agents observed people sitting indoors consuming food or beverages. They 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. Hanson organized a protest Jan. 3 in which 200 to 300 people attended, and afterward people were invited to come into the restaurant for food, drinks and live music.

The new charges come from an event on Friday night that started at 9 p.m. that was initially described as a “Nail it to The Walz Reopen MN Party” but was later changed to being described as a peaceful protest.

City Attorney Kelly Martinez estimated about 50 people were in attendance at the most recent event, with no social distancing measures followed. She said video evidence shows food and drinks were being consumed inside the restaurant after 10 p.m., which is a violation of the state executive order that requires bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m.

Martinez said indoor activities are extremely dangerous at this time because of COVID-19, and she expects to see spikes in virus cases appear after these types of events.

She said Hanson’s reopening of her restaurant coincided with when cases in Freeborn County started spiking, with most new cases belonging to people between 20 and 60 years of age.

She noted in December, Freeborn County had 434 cases, but in January the numbers spiked, and there were 609 new reported cases and 33 people hospitalized.

Martinez described Hanson’s conduct as “extremely dangerous,” and said the evidence in the case is overwhelming.

Last week under the state lawsuit through the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, Freeborn County District Court Judge Ross Leuning 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.

Martinez asked Schwab to reconsider the bail set in the original six counts and requested unconditional bail of $2,000 per offense or $1,000 conditional bail with conditions of obeying the law, complying with all executive orders, complying with cease-and-desist orders, checking in with court services by phone one time per week and submitting a COVID-19 preparedness plan as required by the Attorney General’s Office.

Schwab ultimately set bail for the file with the original six charges at $12,000 cash or bond or $1,000 conditional with the conditions she obey the law, comply with executive orders, make court appearances and stay in contact with her attorney.

For the three new charges, he ordered $6,000 unconditional bail or being released on her promise to appear if she obeys the law, complies with executive orders, makes her court appearances and maintains contact with her appearances.

He said licensing requirements would be included under the condition of obeying the law.

Hanson on several occasions during the hearing questioned jurisdiction in the case, and Schwab said she was being arraigned in 3rd Judicial District in the state of Minnesota under the rights of Minnesota and the U.S. Constitution. She also questioned whether she was receiving due process, and Schwab said that is what he was trying to do by advising her of the charges against her, advising her of her rights and setting release conditions.

Hanson previously has stated 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.

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

Hanson is next slated to appear for a pre-trial hearing on the criminal charges July 2.

 

Department of Health files lawsuit against The Interchange for operating without a license

The Minnesota Department of Health filed a lawsuit last week against The Interchange for continuing to operate without a license in violation of state statute.

The restaurant had received a license suspension notice in December, and had 20 days to request a hearing. A press release states the restaurant did not request a hearing within 20 days, so its license was officially suspended. It continued to operate, and restaurants are not allowed to provide food and beverage service without an active restaurant license.

“Our preference is always to work with facilities to bring them into compliance, but we owe it to the vast majority of businesses that follow the rules to have accountability for those who do not,” said MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff in a news release. “The public depends upon the licensing of bars and restaurants as a basic public health measure, which is why the legislature requires that bars and restaurants have an active license in order to serve the public. With the added risks of COVID-19 transmission, it is even more critical to ensure all establishments are in compliance.”

The lawsuit follows a series of regulatory actions in response to violations of Executive Order 20-99, which prohibited bars and restaurants from offering on-premises dining. This includes cease-and-desist orders, license suspensions and administrative penalties. The Interchange also faces a five-year liquor license revocation from the Minnesota Department of Safety and has a separate ongoing lawsuit with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office.   

The release stated Executive order 20-99 was issued at a time of rapid acceleration in the spread of COVID-19 across Minnesota and sought to protect Minnesotans while also preventing hospitals and health care systems from becoming overwhelmed by the surge in cases. Case growth slowed following the executive order, suggesting it helped slow the spread of COVID-19. The release stated while case growth has leveled, it remains crucial for businesses to abide by the public health guidance.

“With new COVID-19 variants spreading in the community, we need to be all the more vigilant in protecting ourselves and our communities,” Huff said. “Evidence suggests the B.1.1.7 and P.1 variants spread more easily than the typical COVID-19 infection, so it’s even more important than ever to be wearing masks, social distancing and following public health protocols for businesses.”