CLARKFIELD — Two days before Gov. Tim Walz shut down in-person dining at Minnesota restaurants in November, Natasha Lynne bought Elsie’s Café in Clarkfield.
She had been managing it since August of last year but decided to buy it from the city of Clarkfield. She said the community has been supportive of her efforts to run the restaurant.
“I have a group of farmers that come in, maybe 25 a day. They would come in every day for breakfast, they wouldn’t skip a beat, “ Lynne said. “Now, of course, they can’t come in for breakfast.”
Walz reinstated pandemic restrictions on bars, restaurants and gyms Nov. 21 that did not allow for indoor dining, sending Lynne and her café into a financial tailspin.
While Walz announced Wednesday that he is loosening restrictions and allowing for outdoor dining at 50% capacity or up to 100 people starting Saturday, Lynne is one of about 150 businesses in Minnesota that have decided to fully open up Friday despite the continued ban on indoor dining.
“We have been begging the governor for more notice so businesses can plan for these latest changes,” State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is way too little, far too late — even if a business wanted to start outdoor dining in 20-degree weather, most won’t have time or resources to be ready for customers by the weekend."
Lynne, a mother of three, said she’s frustrated that stores like Target and Walmart can remain open but small businesses like her own are required to keep customers out.
She said her business follows social distancing and cleaning guidelines to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but she isn’t pulling in enough to cover her expenses.
When the restaurant is fully open, she said she will make between $350 to $500 a day but right now while only takeout meals are allowed, there are days when the register only rings up $100.
“So I have to do something, and if we don’t stand up, we’re going to be shut down again for three months and then I’m going to be homeless with my children,” Lynne said.
Minnesota House Republicans, along with Minnesota hospitality advocates, have decried the governor’s decision to extend restaurant closures and his emergency powers allowing him to do so.
“The governor needs to allow our businesses to safely reopen their doors, and stop punishing our hospitality industry when the data does not support their continued closure,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown said in a statement. “Minnesota started a downward trend before restaurants were forced to close, and the governor’s own data shows that only a fraction of a percent of all cases can be tied back to bars and restaurants.”
In a statement released Wednesday, Walz cited concerns about hospital capacity and the fact that Minnesota is very quickly approaching 4,500 deaths related to COVID-19.
“There are some slight improvements in what the governor is ordering but, until we take real steps toward re-opening our state, it’s not enough,” State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said in a statement. “For example, when infection rates for restaurants are less than 1 percent, it seems logical for them to operate at a moderate capacity instead of the governor continuing to ban dine-in service at least until Jan. 10. Outdoor dining during the dead of Minnesota winter might be a novel idea, but it’s not practical in most cases and data does not appear to support that decision."
Yellow Medicine County, where Lynne’s restaurant is located, currently has 13 deaths related to COVID-19 and 753 total cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Lynne said she understands the virus is real but she said if Walz is going to shut down some places but allow others to remain fully open, there has to be a good reason behind that.
“He could have shut down the malls because you go in there and nobody’s wearing a mask at the mall, so it’s very frustrating,” Lynne said. “It’s sad that he deemed us nonessential, but Target is. And you can still go to the mall, that’s essential.”
Businesses are taking a risk choosing to be open, facing possible jail time and fines reaching into the tens of thousands.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s office has filed lawsuits against Boardwalk Bar and Grill in East Grand Forks and Plainview Wellness Center for violating Walz’s executive order.
"I’m asking all businesses affected by executive orders to comply with them voluntarily — which the vast majority of Minnesota businesses are already doing. I’m also asking businesses that are considering reopening in defiance of executive orders not to do it. You’re putting people at risk. People will get sick and die because of you. Not only from COVID-19: if someone has a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident and dies because they can’t get an ICU bed that’s being used by someone who got COVID at your establishment, or got it from someone who got it at your establishment, that death is also on you," Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement Wednesday.
" ... Right now, bars and restaurants reopening for on-premises indoor service is the wrong way to solve the economic crisis: it’s dangerous and puts neighbors, loved ones, and whole communities at risk."
Lynne said she won’t be able to afford any possible legal fees and hopes people will be supportive of businesses that decide to open.
“I’m doing this for my kids. I’m doing this for myself. I’m doing this for my community because they rely on me on having food and keeping our town alive by having a café,” Lynne said. “Because if we start losing our businesses, we’ll lose our town.”