Joe Bushaw, owner of Joe’s Diner in East Grand Forks, is among a number of business owners in Minnesota that have reopened, or are planning to, in defiance of an executive order that closed them to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. That order, with modifications, has been extended to Jan. 11.
Bushaw opened his business at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16. Customers were waiting in the parking lot even before he arrived to open the doors., he said. Bushaw’s business is the second in East Grand Forks to flout the shutdown order, after the Boardwalk Bar and Grill opened on Dec. 9. That business is now being sued by the state’s Attorney General and has had its liquor license suspended for 60 days.
Bushaw is aware of the risks. East Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Hedlund had already dropped by that morning to inform him he was in violation of Executive Order 20-99 and provide him with a copy of it. At the city level, enforcement, at least so far, hasn’t risen to the level of arrests or any other sanction, other than making the owner aware of the violation.
“I’m a nervous wreck, but that's OK,” Bushaw told the Herald at about 9:30 Wednesday morning.
All told, about 150 businesses statewide opted on Wednesday to open in defiance of pandemic-related restrictions handed down by Gov. Tim Walz in November. Some members of the recently formed organization, which calls itself the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition, say that if they don’t open, they’ll lose their businesses anyway.
Among them were a few businesses from the region, including Joe’s Diner and Boardwalk Bar and Grill in East Grand Forks. Lu Lu’s Grooming Salon in Crookston, which is allowed to be open, joined the list in solidarity with other small business owners.
The businesses reopened on the same day Walz announced the mandate will continue throughout the state, at a Dec. 16 news conference, though he did loosen the restrictions on outdoor dining.
The day started with Boardwalk Bar and Grill owner Jane Moss discussing the business owners’ plight on the national TV program “Fox and Friends.”
By 9:30 a.m., about 10 cars were in the parking lot at Joe's Diner, and about 20 guests were seated around the dining room. Staff, Bushaw included, were wearing masks. His decision to reopen came after some of his employees told him they couldn’t pay their rent. Last week, he embarked on a campaign to sell gift cards to raise money for his business, and a post on social media page noted he hit his goal of $20,000. That campaign came about after an alleged theft of a similar amount of cash from another restaurant he owns in South Dakota and the failure of the furnace at his East side restaurant.
Bushaw said that Hedlund told him he wished he had not decided to reopen until after the governor’s conference, when he could have allowed business to reopen. That did not come to pass, and Bushaw said he couldn’t wait any longer.
“If I didn’t open now, I would have lost everything,” he said.
At the news conference, Walz announced bars, restaurants and breweries would be allowed to serve patrons outdoors at 50% of the business’s capacity to a maximum of 100 people, which he admitted may not be entirely feasible given the season. Indoor dining will remain off limits until Jan. 11.
“I just want to be clear, I know we're in Minnesota and I know it's the middle of December,” Walz said. “I know this doesn't make folks whole, but like so many of these things, we're trying to move as much as we can to mitigate the risk to provide some of that economic activity, while getting the most benefit on the safety and the health side of this.”
Shortly after the conference, Walz signed legislation authorizing a $216 million package of direct support to small businesses and a 13-week extension in unemployment benefits. The aid package will provide direct payments to small businesses, and the remainder will be doled out to counties.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, in a statement sent to news organizations on Wednesday, said his office will enforce the shutdown order as a last resort “but we will use them when we need to.” Violators of the order could face fines of up to $25,000 per instance.
“I’m asking all businesses affected by executive orders to comply with them voluntarily — which the vast majority of Minnesota businesses are already doing,” Ellison said in the release. “I’m also asking businesses that are considering reopening in defiance of executive orders not to do it. You’re putting people at risk. People will get sick and die because of you.”
Kitty Stromberg, the owner of Kitty’s Cafe in Oslo which lies next door to Jamieson’s on Main, said her cafe is complying with the order and only offering takeout. She’s worried of not being able to pay a fine should she open her doors. Though business is “way down,” she said she’s lucky to have a business in a small town where people are loyal and get their orders to go.
“People have said ‘oh, you're in a small town, why don't you try’ but it's just not worth it for me,” Stromberg said. “We’re too small; even if I opened, I'm not going to take in enough to be able to pay the fine.”