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Minn. Appeals Court rules against bars that defied governor's orders

The judges rejected appeals brought by the operators of two of the many bars that served on-site food and drinks or ignored a face mask mandate.

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ST. PAUL — A panel of Minnesota Court of Appeals judges on Monday affirmed the state health department’s authority to punish bars that violated emergency orders put in place during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the ruling, the three judges rejected appeals brought by the operators of two of the many bars that served on-site food and drinks or ignored a face mask mandate, in violation of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.

The Minnesota Department of Health levied a $10,000 administrative penalty and a 30-day license suspension against operator Norm Sugden for “knowing, intentional, serious and repeated” violations at Norm’s Wayside in Buffalo.

Regarding similar violations by Kevin McColluch and Mission Tavern in Merrifield, the health department let an administrative law judge decide the penalty, which was a 20-day license suspension and $5,000.

During separate case proceedings before an administrative law judge, the bar operators acknowledged ignoring the governor’s orders, but they challenged the health department’s authority to enforce them, arguing the orders were unconstitutional because they lacked a rational basis.

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As part of their argument, the bars submitted affidavits from Scott Jensen, the family doctor and Republican who is challenging Walz for governor in November, in which he made numerous false claims about the coronavirus.

Jensen’s letter stated his “belief that MDH overstated the number of deaths from COVID-19, that ‘COVID-19 may have a similar fatality rate to influenza,’ and that an ‘effective treatment’ for COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine, was available,” Chief Judge Susan Segal wrote for the three-judge panel.

“Relators’ evidence fails to demonstrate that the executive orders lack a rational basis,” Segal continued.

The health department gets its enforcement authority from a 1993 state law. The bar operators argued that the statute does not clearly authorize the health department to enforce executive orders, but the appeals court panel disagreed.

The judges also rejected the bar operators’ argument that the health department no longer can impose sanctions because the executive orders since have been rescinded.

Attorney Richard Dahl, who represents Norm’s Wayside, Mission Tavern and others, said Monday the appeals court ruling was politically motivated.

“They’re straining to avoid the obvious interpretation of the statute because it’s politically inconvenient for them,” he said.

Dahl said Monday’s order does not settle the matter.

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“We’re going to sue them in federal court after we get done. I may even sue some judges. This is the beginning of this war,” he said.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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