Joe Bushaw is exhausted, and he’s ready to move his diner across the Red River into Grand Forks as the Minnesota Department of Health follows through on a plan to temporarily shutter the business after Bushaw violated a gubernatorial order late last year.
The food and beverage license for Joe’s Diner, an East Grand Forks restaurant that Bushaw owns and operates, was suspended, effective Jan. 16, for 60 days by health department administrators for “serious and/or repeated violations” of executive orders 20-99 and 20-81. The first of those orders, which has since been relaxed, required Minnesota bars and restaurants like Bushaw’s to close to dine-in service for several weeks late last year. The second requires people statewide to wear masks while inside indoor businesses.
“I can barely even think, I’m just so mad,” he told the Herald and WDAY inside his otherwise empty restaurant. “I can’t sleep. They don’t realize what they’re doing to business owners and their employees.”
Bushaw, 19, expressed that frustration in a Facebook post on Thursday evening, declaring that he was looking for a spot in Grand Forks, where state leaders have taken a less restrictive approach to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. That attracted the notice of Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, who offered to help. Bushaw, Bochenski and several high-ranking city administrators are set to meet Monday morning, and, since his post, Bushaw said he’d been fielding calls and other messages from property owners in Grand Forks offering to sell or rent spots for him to move his diner.
“I’d be happy if I was gone yesterday,” Bushaw said. “As soon as I can get out of here, I will.”
Joe’s Diner was one of a handful of businesses in Minnesota that reopened in mid-December despite Gov. Tim Walz’s closure orders, which were designed to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The governor’s ban on dine-in service went into effect Nov. 20 and, ultimately, was toned down Jan. 11. Despite the order, Bushaw opened Joe’s from Dec. 16 through Dec. 22, minus an interstitial Monday. A health department inspector noted that the diner was open on Dec. 17 and that a waitress there was not wearing a mask. A second inspection on Dec. 22, plus Facebook posts and news coverage, indicated the restaurant was open then, too. Both formed the basis for the suspension, according to correspondence from health department staff that Bushaw supplied to the Herald.
He received on Dec. 26 a cease-and-desist order from the state health department, dated Dec. 23, that required him to close for up to 72 hours and confirm with state officials he had done as much. Sent with that order was a notice, dated Dec. 24, that the diner’s food and beverage license will be suspended for 60 days.
Bushaw said he took that to mean that his license would be suspended if he didn’t close up shop, which he had already done a few days prior at that point.
About two weeks later, Bushaw reopened alongside bars and restaurants across Minnesota when Walz loosened his restriction on dine-in service. He figured he was in the clear, which is why Thursday’s letter came as a shock.
“It was maddening and out of nowhere,” Bushaw said.
Communications staff at the health department did not return Herald requests for comment on Friday, but the December correspondence from administrators there suggest that Bushaw had, from the day he received the letter informing him of the suspension, 20 days to wind down operations at the diner and, if he wanted to, contest the suspension. He did not contest the suspension in writing, which the materials he received on the 26th specifically required.
Jan. 15, the last day before the suspension began, is 20 days after Dec. 26, the day Bushaw said he received the letter.
He forwarded the health department documents to a lawyer, but did not hear back about them specifically, he said.
The diner also ran afoul of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose staff asked Bushaw to agree not to violate any current or future gubernatorial orders in exchange for not pursuing civil charges in Polk County court. Bushaw has thus far refused that agreement, but Ellison’s lawyers have only filed suit against the Boardwalk Bar and Grill, another East Grand Forks eatery that opened despite Walz’s COVID-19 orders.
Joe’s Diner is down to Bushaw plus three other employees – a cook, a waiter and a dishwasher – and the business has missed out on about $120,000 to $180,000 worth of revenue during the closure order, he estimated.
“I shouldn’t have opened in the first place. I get it,” said Bushaw, who noted bitterly that health department staff haven’t missed a paycheck during the pandemic. “But I had no choice, really, but to open or I would have lost my business anyway, and my employees needed money for Christmas and for bills and whatever, so we opened up. And now, I thought it was all taken care of, good to go. They asked me to close, I closed, did what I had to do to make things correct, I guess you could say.”
He’s applied for financial help via an East Grand Forks forgivable loan program and a Polk County business grant program, but both aren’t set to pay out for weeks, and it might be too little, too late to keep the diner east of the river.
For the moment, Joe’s Diner is still open to customers, but Bushaw told WDAY he plans to close for good in East Grand Forks once the diner runs out of food. He expects that’ll happen before the end of the weekend.