ST. PAUL — An informal group of small businesses in Minnesota plans to defy state coronavirus pandemic safety guidelines and reopen prematurely this week.
Calling itself the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition, the group is plotting the move as Gov. Tim Walz weighs whether to re-impose restrictions on bars, restaurants and other public-facing businesses. Curfews and capacity limits went back into effect last month amid a statewide increase in cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, and are set to expire Friday, Dec. 18.
The group is calling on businesses in rural Minnesota to reopen Wednesday, Dec. 16, and for businesses in the Twin Cities metro area to reopen Friday, Dec. 18. Approximately 150 businesses have pledged to participate, according to Darius Teichroew, who helped organize the group.
"If you have been waiting to take a stand for something during COVID, now is the time that your voice can be heard," the group said in a Facebook post last week.
In-person dining and large-scale weddings, funeral receptions and other gatherings are not allowed under the restrictions Walz put in place last month, nor can they stay open past a 10 p.m. curfew. Health officials cited the number of COVID-19 cases linked to bars, restaurants and social gatherings when announcing the restrictions.
But the group said caseloads linked to such places and things are not substantial enough to warrant the rules small business owners have had to follow since then at expense of their livelihoods. Owners of one restaurant in East Grand Forks, Minn., gave similar reasons for reopening in defiance of the restrictions last week, something that ultimately led to the suspension of their liquor license and to their being sued by the state Attorney General's Office.
In anticipation of similar legal reprisal, meanwhile, the reopening group also established an online defense fund to help protesting businesses with legal expenses that they may incur.
The attorney general's office did not explicitly say whether it would take action against the group. But in a statement, Attorney General Keith Ellison called it "everyone's responsibility" to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
"The vast majority of Minnesota business owners recognize this: they’re making sacrifices to comply with the law because they care about the health of their employees and communities," Ellison said.
"Unfortunately, a small handful of businesses are defying the Governor's executive order to keep restaurants closed for on-premises dining, unlike the vast majority that are respecting it. I get no happiness out of enforcing the order, but my duty to protect Minnesotans from the deadliest global pandemic in a century demands it," Ellison continued.
In an interview Monday, Dec. 14, Teichroew said he has not been contacted by any state authorities but has received supportive messages from state legislators. An engineer from the Twin Cities area, Teichroew said he helped to lead similar protest actions with retail business owners over the summer but never tried his hand at community organizing before the pandemic.
Teichroew said he became interested in advocating for small businesses after reviewing Minnesota COVID-19 case data, which he said do not support the restrictions state officials have put in place.
"I did not start 2020 as a social organizer of any sort," he said.
State health investigators traced approximately 3,300 cases of COVID-19 back to around 190 bars and restaurants, according to figures released last month by the Minnesota Department of Health. The statewide case count stood at 381,841 on Monday, a figure that reflects some 3,000 newly confirmed cases announced that day.
However, Teichroew said he and other businesses joining in the protest are not denying the seriousness of the pandemic. His spouse recently caught COVID-19, he said, and loved ones of his even died of it.
State officials acknowledged the difficult situation that small businesses face when announcing the new restrictions last month and sought to address them with an additional $10 million in small business relief grants.
"This is not fair," Walz said at the time. "The pandemic is not fair, and it is our job as leaders to make it more just. Small businesses across our state are in dire need of relief."
Funding for the grants is included in a wider relief package on which the Minnesota Legislature was expected to vote Monday. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development over the summer doled out about $60 million in such grants through a lottery system.
Contact Matthew Guerry at email@example.com or 651-321-4314