The Crow Wing County Board agreed Tuesday, May 19, to send correspondence to Gov. Tim Walz, urging him to allow businesses to reopen for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend so long as those businesses have a safety plan in place.
The decision came after hearing six letters in opposition to reopening, three letters in favor of reopening and three phone calls or video calls in favor of reopening. The board held the special meeting to discuss the county's options for businesses to reopen for the holiday weekend.
After hearing letters and statements, board chair Paul Koering asked what options the county had. He presented some ideas and asked if County Administrator Tim Houle thought any were viable. Among those ideas were: following Pequot Lakes' lead and declaring that businesses in the county would be allowed to open, following Deerwood's lead and sending a board resolution to the governor strongly requesting permission to open businesses with safety plans, filing a lawsuit against the governor and state, or joining a lawsuit by Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady's Bar in Albany.
"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 Pequot did, but I think that would put businesses in jeopardy in Crow Wing County. I would like to see if we could join the lawsuit this gentleman has in Albany."
Schiffler is in the spotlight since becoming the focus of fines and restraining orders due to his decision to reopen early on Monday, May 18. Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose mother died of COVID-19 in April, first threatened Schiffler with fines when Shady's Bar first received media attention for declaring it would open early in violation of official orders. Schiffler raised funds for a lawsuit against Ellison through GoFundMe, and some individuals, organizations and communities are joining that lawsuit as "friends of the court."
Locally, Ellison threatened similar fines, $25,000 per day open, against the Pequot Lakes American Legion for reopening Friday, May 15, if they did not close back down.
Houle said the county might open itself up to legal liability if it were to declare county businesses open, because the county doesn't technically have the legal authority to establish less stringent laws than the state. Any business that opened with the understanding that the county did have the authority to prevent the state from retaliating might be able to sue the county, and the insurance for the county likely would not pay for legal representation.
In addition to fines, the state holds the power to not approve various licenses, including liquor licenses, salon licenses and others. Though those licenses are technically issued locally, the state must validate them. In the case of liquor stores, the state can directly withhold buyers cards necessary to stock those establishments.
"They might open but they might have their license taken away and the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners would have no control over that," Houle said.
Koering didn't think lawsuits would conclude soon enough for their purpose. The general consensus was that the board should support urging the governor to allow a Memorial Day reopening. The board accepted that plan, noting it would include salons, campgrounds and other restricted businesses as well.
Houle recommended that action be twofold, not only asking the governor for leeway, but also urging businesses to reopen under strict safety guidelines. Houle and board members all commended Lake Country Cares as a cohesive set of guidelines for businesses to create plans for safely reopening.
Before reaching its decision, the board heard from Josh Goolsbee, of Lonesome Pine Restaurant in Deerwood, and Karen Miller, of the Garrison VFW, both in favor of reopening businesses.
“I can tell you there are numerous businesses in our area that will not survive this,” Miller said. “The majority of our money is made especially on Memorial (Day) weekend.”
Miller said continued closure would have an impact on others in the community as well, specifically charities supported by donations from the VFW and charitable gambling proceeds that often go to fire departments, community groups and animal shelters.
“I think most of us have similar beliefs and desires,” Goolsbee said. “I feel good about speaking for our county restaurants and bars. It's Memorial Day weekend. For me, at Lonesome Pine, that's a third of my first quarter revenue in five days.”
Goolsbee said that eating establishments are particularly well organized for safe reopening due to existing sanitation training, saying business owners are smart and would act within Centers for Disease Control guidelines. He said the treatment of eating establishments was unfair when compared to the flood of customers from out of town many have seen at big box retailers and already in communities.
Among those who were opposed to the concept of early reopening were Dr. Minto Porter with Essentia Health and Pastor Leslie Moughty of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd.
Porter said she was writing on behalf of her patients with asthma and preexisting conditions and warned that the local health care system could be overwhelmed as a result of an early reopening, possibly limiting care to medical assistance for patients with non-COVID-19 related issues.
“We all want a full economic recovery as soon as possible but we cannot do it at expense of their lives,” Porter wrote. “My patients are counting on you.”
Moughty said she was someone who will be responsible for performing funerals and caring for grieving loved ones and urged the board to put greater weight on possible loss of life. Other letters similarly urged the board to consider loss of life more heavily than loss of money.
“Your decision will drastically affect our community,” Moughty wrote.
Most who corresponded with the board in favor of reopening early were business owners, some, such as the owner of Big Al's Bar in Emily, said they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Those who corresponded against reopening early identified in one case as a business owner with an auto-immune disorder, in other cases as family of medical staff, in the bar business and those in high risk.
The board also heard from lobbyist Katherine Kersten, with the Center of the American Experiment of Minneapolis. Kersten said there have been more than 50,000 emails to the governor and legislators asking for an end to the shutdown and said there are several lawsuits in progress against the state, governor and attorney general. Kersten told the board the state wasn't accurately characterizing the threat and was exaggerating.
Commissioner Doug Houge said the cost of running a business is steadily increasing now with an increase in food prices and the cost of creating and following safety plans.
"It's going to be a long, tough road for anyone who is able to keep their doors open," Houge said.
The county board also discussed how board meetings would proceed after the local emergency declaration ends May 23. Koering said he would like to see people allowed back into meetings, saying that not everyone has a computer or internet.
Houle recommended continuing to follow CDC guidelines restricting gatherings to 10 people or less. That would limit those gathered in the county board chambers to the board and necessary staff.
The rest of the board concurred, though because fewer staff and board members will be required for meetings of the Board of Appeals, Houle suggested the county might offer the choice to the consumer while also limiting the number of people present at one time, which might be appealing especially to those who would otherwise have to come from far away to attend.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.