While the sun was still rising, East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander, other local and state legislators and a few East side residents met at the Spud Jr. for a drink on the sidewalk on the frigid morning of Saturday, Dec. 19.

Gander said it was the first time they were allowed to gather at a restaurant, albeit outdoors and during the Minnesota winter, since Gov. Tim Walz extended an Executive Order that barred restaurants, bars and other entertainment establishments from allowing customers to enter the premises, but allowed them to serve up to four guests per table outdoors. The group gathered to shine a light on the new rules, which many there called ill-conceived.

“In light of his extension of his shutdowns, (it’s) ridiculous,” said Justin LaRocque, who owns the Spud Jr., of Walz’s order. “Idiotic would be a better word.”

Nearly a dozen people gathered to sit at tables outside, and they started with a round of hard coffee drinks. Mimosas followed, which quickly began to freeze as the temperature Saturday morning barely cracked zero degrees.

Gander called the shutdown orders a “boulder” in the path of commerce and good business and community relations. The new order, which continues until Jan. 11, doesn’t remove that boulder, but gives people a means to circumvent it, he said. Gander, who called the group together, said people could either stand by that boulder and wait for it to go away, or go out and have some fun.

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“That's why we're here, we're walking around the boulder, and we're doing it inside the law,” he said.

State Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said she was “very disappointed” in the continuing restrictions and decried the lack of local control for businesses, when decisions about schools have often been left to each school district. Minnesotans should be able to determine for themselves where they wish to go, and when it’s the appropriate time to wear masks, she said.

Kiel was joined by state Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, who joked that Gander brought him to the early-morning session at gunpoint. Like Kiel, Johnson said local communities should be able to have input on what the pandemic response should look like, instead of having to abide by “edicts” delivered from the governor. Each county has different needs, and a one-size fits all approach is insufficient, he said.

“I wouldn't even care if he had the emergency powers right now, if it was from a bottom-up perspective,” Johnson said.

Protest plan?

LaRocque said he is working with the city to secure a permit to block off 3rd Street Northwest, from DeMers Avenue to near Sacred Heart High School. The idea is to fill the streets with ice houses and tents, where people can hang out and order food from downtown East Grand Forks restaurants. The protest is to highlight the absurdity of the executive order that let’s people dine outside, he said.

Should East Grand Forks close a city street to offer outdoor dining in tents and ice houses?

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People would be charged a fee to park and be required to place an order. The money raised from the parking fees would then be split between the owners of the Boardwalk Bar and Grill and Joe’s Diner to assist them with paying for a legal defense. The Boardwalk is being sued by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for defying the shutdown order, and its liquor license has been revoked for two months. An employee at Joe’s Diner, which has also reopened to dine in business in violation of that order, said the restaurant has not been sued yet.

City aid for East Grand Forks businesses?

Gander said the East Grand Forks City Council will hold a special meeting on Monday, Dec. 21, to consider a local aid package for businesses impacted by the shutdown order. That aid would come in the form of forgivable loans, that range from $10,000 to $25,000. If the council approves the proposal, money would be transferred to the city’s Economic Development Authority, which would then decide how to distribute it and to whom.

City Council President Mark Olstad said certain businesses will fall through the cracks of a recently approved $217 million state aid package for businesses, including the Spud Jr. and Joe’s Diner. Those businesses are too new and don’t meet the criteria to receive funding, which is why it is necessary to act at the local level.

“We have to do something,” Olstad said. “We just can't let this one person in St. Paul keep dictating how we can run our lives and run our businesses in town here.”

“Or determine the success or failure of our businesses,” Gander said.