Jury trial underway for Interchange owner

Published 11:44 pm Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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Officials from the Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division and Department of Health took the stand Wednesday on the first day of the jury trial against the owner of The Interchange Wine and Coffee Bistro in Albert Lea.

The representatives testified about actions of restaurant owner Lisa Hanson that they investigated in December 2020 when she reopened her business for in-person dining in violation of state executive orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Carla Cincotta, director of the Alcohol and Gambling Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said her agency was made aware of multiple businesses that were expected to defy the governor’s orders as part of the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition.She said under Minnesota Statute 12.45 she had the authority to enforce Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency order that had been put into effect in November 2020. Included in the things she considered in her investigation were social media posts and news articles.

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Albert Lea City Attorney Kelly Martinez showed a few television news articles of Hanson’s business being opened for in-person dining Dec. 16, 2020.

“It’s all about our rights, our freedoms and our liberties as American citizens,” Hanson is shown saying on a video from KAAL-TV about opening up the business on Dec. 16. A line of customers is also seen in the video, along with others in the restaurant eating and drinking. Some customers were masked, others were not, and many were not following social distancing guidelines.

Hanson asks the governor to trust herself and other business owners.

“We’re responsible adults,” she says in the video and indicates she plans to continue to stay open.

Throughout Cincotta’s testimony, and others’ testimony throughout the day, Hanson, who is representing herself in the trial, objected numerous times, stating a law had to be an enacted for there to be a breach. She has consistently questioned the constitutionality of the governor’s executive orders and whether the governor had the authority to issue the orders. She also questioned where the state agencies got their authority to enforce the orders.

Judge Joseph Bueltel previously ruled under pre-trial motions that under state law, the governor’s orders have the “full force and effect of law.” He overruled many of Hanson’s objections.

Hanson asked Cincottta if she was aware of anyone who became ill by patronizing her business.

Cincotta said she was not.

Mike DeMars, a public sanitarian who enforces state codes with the Minnesota Department of Health, said normally it is his job to protect public health. He said when the governor’s executive orders were issued, he conducted routine inspections with establishments to make sure the orders were being followed and for things such as whether employees were wearing masks and if capacity limits were being followed.

He said health officials were concerned about restaurants because a good number of cases were occurring in public spaces where people weren’t wearing masks. DeMars he was specifically alerted to The Interchange because of a complaint the state received that the restaurant had its dining room open to onsite eating.

At that time, restaurants could not have customers inside for consumption, and no more than five people could be in the restaurant at a time if picking up take-out orders.

DeMars said when he walked in the restaurant Dec. 16, 2020, there were multiple customers standing and seated in the restaurant. He walked up to the counter to ask to speak with Hanson outside. He said he mentioned to Hanson that the executive order did not allow in-person dining, and she said she knew that was the case. She said she planned to continue to offer food and beverages.

In addition to the people in the restaurant, he said there was a sign on the front of the door from Hanson that said the business was open for indoor dining.

He said he was concerned that there were large groups of people gathering without face masks on and potentially spreading COVID-19. He also noted that there no social distancing measures in place and customers weren’t masked

When questioned by Hanson, DeMars said the governor’s office directed the state health department to enforce the executive orders. Like with other parts of his job, if a law is not being followed, he follows up and helps bring the business into compliance.

Hanson began to ask about the word “law” and if it was different than an executive order when Martinez objected.

Sanitarian Supervisor Matt Finkenbiner said after the inspection Dec. 16, 2020, he delivered a cease-and-desist order to the restaurant the morning of Dec. 18, 2020, under which the business was to stop all business operations and essentially close for 72 hours. Cease-and-desist orders are given in instances where the continuation of activity would result in an immediate risk to public health. In addition to the order and posting a cease-and-desist sign on the front door of the restaurant, he also gave a copy of the inspector’s report from a few days before and a letter that requires the business owner to respond in writing within 10 days.

While he was at the restaurant, he said he observed a family of four, along with two people leaving the business with coffee in hand and other people inside eating and drinking.

Finkenbiner cited Minnesota Statute 144.99 as the statute that gives him power to enforce law and noted that executive orders have the full force and effect of law. He said he is able to enforce executive orders under the same statute that allows him to conduct the normal duties of his job.

Finkenbiner returned the following day, Dec. 19, 2020, to find the restaurant sill observed to be open.

Finkenbiner is slated to be questioned in cross examination by Hanson Wednesday morning.

Hanson faces nine criminal misdemeanor counts over two cases, but the cases are being tried separately. In the case before jurors this week, there are six counts of violating emergency powers, each punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.