The Crow Wing County Board wants to see shuttered businesses reopen as soon as Wednesday, May 20, provided they’ve developed preparedness plans and are able to execute them.
During a special meeting Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution urging Gov. Tim Walz to allow bars, restaurants and other places of accommodation to reopen once they’ve met guidelines put forth by the state, expected to be released Wednesday. Modeled after one put forth by the Deerwood City Council, the resolution comes as some area business owners are keeping up hope of reopening ahead of Memorial Day weekend, typically a big revenue generator for an area known for its tourism economy. Walz’s order as it stands would not permit reopening for full service until June 1.
What the resolution does not do is give businesses the county’s blessing to reopen in defiance of executive orders intended to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state, such as the action taken May 12 by the Pequot Lakes City Council.
“Even if we passed the resolution that is in front of me that Pequot passed … that doesn’t mean that a barber or a salon or anybody that is issued a license from the state, they might open, but they might have their license taken away and the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners has no control of that,” said Chairman Paul Koering.
“That would be the danger in you saying something like that,” County Administrator Tim Houle replied. “This would fall into the category of saying it doesn’t make it so. … Our action can’t overrule any of those state authorities. So if you were to express that we are open, you may create the false impression that we’re open. God forbid something bad would happen, I believe that you would probably be drawn into that lawsuit.”
Houle added it’s questionable whether the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust would cover the costs of a lawsuit in that situation, and he noted commissioners could be sued personally as well.
The agreed-upon resolution is expected to be coupled with phone calls from commissioners to the governor’s office pleading the case to allow reopening ahead of the holiday weekend, along with support for Lake Country Cares, an initiative underway to assist businesses with establishing health and safety protocols in line with state and federal guidelines.
Other options available for the board included suing Walz or filing an amicus brief in the case involving Kris Schiffler, a central Minnesota bar owner who’s facing a lawsuit from the attorney general’s office and the potential for stiff penalties after he announced intentions to reopen his six businesses Monday. Schiffler did not follow through with that plan.
“I’ve come to the conclusion, I would love to sue the governor’s ass off, but that isn’t going to happen quick enough,” Koering said. “I would like to offer up the resolution that Pequot did, but I think that would put businesses in jeopardy in Crow Wing County and I don’t agree with that. I would like to see if we could join the lawsuit that this gentleman has down in Albany but I don’t know that that would be the right path.”
Constituents weigh in
Commissioners Tuesday heard testimony from Josh Goolsbee, owner of Lonesome Pine Restaurant and Bar on Bay Lake, along with that of Karen Miller, commander of the Garrison VFW Post No. 1816. Both were in attendance at a meeting Friday of restaurant and bar owners who expressed interest in opening earlier than June 1.
Goolsbee said he’s put together a petition he’ll send to the governor on the issue.
“We are Minnesotans and we will do the right thing,” Goolsbee read from his petition via a Microsoft Teams video conference call. “We will not place customers in a dangerous situation and will abide by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.”
Miller pointed to other consequences of the shutdown that may not be as apparent — the negative effect on charitable giving. She said she would no longer be able to donate thousands of dollars to a local food shelf, and with charitable gambling shut down as well, organizations that depend on those funds — such as volunteer fire departments — will be severely affected.
The board also heard letters from a number of constituents, including a bar owner and a pastor, most of whom urged the board not to move forward in defiance of the governor. Among them was Dr. Minto Porter, an Essentia Health physician focused on allergies, asthma and immunology. Porter said she was writing on behalf of hundreds of his patients and asking the county board to stand up for them.
“Certainly, I can keep these patients home to protect them, but I cannot shelter their families, their roommates, their care teams, etc.,” she wrote. “ … If you open up bars and restaurants, our health care systems will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, potentially delaying care for my patients who HAVE made the responsible decision to stay home yet cannot completely account for their allergy or immune disease. … My patients are counting on you.”
Commissioners share views
As a bar and restaurant owner in Crosby, Commissioner Doug Houge echoed a point brought forward in a letter from Crosby resident Abby Geotz. Geotz noted Crosby area businesses faced hardship last summer with road construction in the area and are expected to face another difficult business season next year when Highway 210 is reconstructed through that city and nearby Ironton. The global pandemic is another blow, she said.
“We don’t have to be medical degrees to figure this out. We have to have a degree in common sense,” Houge said.
Houge said he wants to see more fairness between big box stores — most of which have remained open since the executive orders concerning COVID-19 began — and small businesses. But he said he feared the plea would fall on deaf ears.
“I say we have common sense plans and we can enforce them better, and it is the lifeline of our community. We’ve got to do something,” Houge said. “ … I’m in favor of sending any resolution we have to give us Memorial weekend, to give us something to cling to that may give us some hope of surviving.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows offered compliments to the community for efforts to be safe over the past couple of months and said he wants to see that continue. He expressed discomfort with the idea of offering a blanket resolution encouraging businesses to reopen, noting some businesses may opt to not follow any kind of safety guidelines.
“That’s a struggle in my head with opening up,” Barrows said. “I know we can’t solve 100% of the problems, just like we can’t force people to wear masks, gloves, sanitize and keep a safe distance. … If people don’t feel comfortable in that business, that business is not going to have that person return, and if you know anything about marketing, one bad review rolls out to 200 other people. That’s a huge issue for a business that doesn’t want to follow the guidelines being placed out there.”
Commissioner Bill Brekken said he wanted the board to put forward something with more teeth, but noted with the attorney general’s office weighing in as it has by threatening $25,000 daily fines, that makes it very difficult. Brekken suggested commissioners begin calling the governor’s office in addition to passing the resolution and promoting the Lake Country Cares initiative.
“The chamber director of Crosslake calls the governor every day. Maybe we have to be a little more assertive, too,” Brekken said. “ … And I guess the last thing is we pray that we can get something changed by Friday.”
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said her family has operated businesses for many years and she saw her son’s business suffer during the Great Recession. She also has family members in the medical field and said she believes safety is really important.
“I also will not defy the governor. That’s a no-win situation,” Franzen said. “ … I just want people to know that I do empathize and I think we need to do something.”
Brekken made the motion to pass the resolution modeled after Deerwood’s and Houge seconded the motion. All commissioners voted in favor and agreed to frequently call the governor’s office, emphasizing the desire to see lakes area communities reopen as safely — and quickly — as possible.
UPDATE: Dr. Minto Porter was incorrectly identified as a man. She is a woman.
The Dispatch regrets the error.