ST. PAUL -- In a speech in front of Farmington’s closed City Hall Monday, business owner Tim Struck said that when the stay-at-home order ends May 18, his business will open the next day — even if the governor extends his order that doesn’t allow it.
Since March 16, many of Minnesota’s small-retail, face-to-face businesses have been shuttered to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Unemployment applications topped 650,000 as the closures have wreaked havoc on the state’s economy as well as the businesses’ bottom lines. Some say the stay-at-home order has forced an ultimatum: shut down for good or possibly defy state orders and open back up.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of small businesses over the last couple of days. . . they’re afraid to open. They’re afraid to get fines. They’re afraid they’ll be put in jail. They’re afraid they’ll lose their license, of legal expenses, and as Governor Walz said, basically asking people to put bad Yelp reviews on these businesses, which is just deplorable,” said Struck, owner of CrossFit Calypso. “Small business owners should not be afraid to go to work to make an honest living. It’s the United States of America.”
It’s a sentiment that is gaining traction in smaller cities that resent what Struck calls, the Governor’s “arbitrary” decisions over which businesses can be open and which must be closed. Some say Walz is treating all cities in the state as though they were similar in population and composition as the Twin Cities. Walz says reopening must be done in an orderly way for the health of all.
Do cities know best?
Vadnais Heights posted a letter its mayor sent to Walz on May 6 encouraging him to open the state’s small businesses.
“Not all categories of businesses are equal and one size doesn’t always fit all,” Mayor Heidi Gunderson wrote in the letter. “If big box stores can operate safely, surely a small main street retailer or salon can as well. Those proprietors know their businesses best and should have the ability to take appropriate precautions to make the best decisions for their customers and staff.”
The virus has affected all but three of Minnesota’s 87 counties. There are 12,494 confirmed cases and 614 deaths linked to the coronavirus in the state as of Tuesday.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have generally had the most cases, but several smaller rural and non-metro counties, such as Martin, Stearns and Nobles have had hot spots flare up recently. In fact, Worthington’s Nobles County has had more confirmed cases than St. Paul’s Ramsey County.
Other cities are hinting at their plans, without showing their hand just yet.
“The flood gates are opening,” tweeted Lakeville City Councilman Luke Hellier on May 11. “Several cities are planning resolutions on re-opening that will be voted on this week. Stay tuned for more.”
He did not give specifics, but added, “Whatever happens with the governor will determine what type of resolution I present to our council for discussion at our next meeting.”
Another protest is planned Thursday at the governor’s residence to put pressure on Walz to open the state.
“Insiders are telling us that he will NOT be removing the shelter in place order on May 18th,” organizers of “Reopen Minnesota” wrote on the Facebook event. “If we don’t push back, this order will go on for months.”
The risks of defiance
Should Walz extend the closure, cities who choose to disregard it are taking a risk.
According to Walz’s most recent executive order, “Any business owner, manager, or supervisor who requires or encourages any of their employees, contractors, vendors, volunteers, or interns to violate this Executive Order is guilty of a gross misdemeanor and upon conviction must be punished by a fine not to exceed $3,000 or by imprisonment for not more than a year. In addition to those criminal penalties, the Attorney General, as well as city and county attorneys, may seek any civil relief including civil penalties up to $25,000 per occurrence from businesses and injunctive relief.”
In his May 5 press conference, Walz said he’d prefer not to use police resources to enforce penalties. He cautioned, rather, that the public might react poorly to businesses who disregard state guidance.
“I would be a little bit nervous if somebody is not listening to the health department and not listening to others and deciding to do on its own,” he said. “Yelp has a way of making those type of things come back.”
Some cities hesitate to officially announce support of businesses opening while a stay-at-home order is in place because they are unsure if their insurance would cover them should an outbreak occur and they are sued.
The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust can’t promise that won’t happen.
“We’ve never dealt with anything like this. We have no precedent to look at,” said Patricia Beety, the League’s general counsel. “It would be a case-by-case basis. We would have to look at all of the circumstances like we do with any other coverage or claim.”
Closures seem arbitrary
In Farmington, Struck had the support of at least one city council member, Joshua Hoyt, and his state representative, Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
“I stand with Tim Struck and all the Farmington business owners who decide to responsibly open,” Garofalo posted Monday. “The orders by Governor Tim Walz to decide which businesses are closed have been arbitrary in nature.”
Hoyt attended the assembly and gave his support.
“I support all of our businesses and their owners in making whatever decisions are necessary for the livelihood of their families and the future of their business,” he said. “We’re not going to lay down and go quietly and silently in the night. We fight. Dammit, we’re fighting.”