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Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton faces a lawsuit from the state attorney general’s office and suspension of its liquor license after serving customers indoors in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order banning indoor service.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Dec. 17 his office had filed lawsuits against the Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville and Neighbors on the Rum in Dakota County and Mille Lacs County District Courts, respectively.

The state-based lawsuits were in response to both of the establishments opening up to large crowds on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

A civil complaint filed in Mille Lacs County District Court alleges the following:

On Wednesday, Dec. 16, Neighbors advertised on its public Facebook page that it would be open at 11 a.m. for full service.

Later that day, Neighbors posted the establishment was open for dine in, take out, and curbside.

According to the complaint, when a Princeton Police Department officer went to Neighbors with two Minnesota Department of Health employees, the officer noted “40 to 50 individuals inside” who were seated at the bar and at tables.

The MDH employees also noted that those individuals were eating and drinking inside the restaurant, the complaint alleges.

When local police informed Neighbors that continuing to operate as they were would violate Executive Order 20-99, a Neighbors representative indicated the business would continue to open for on-premises consumption.

The civil complaint also alleges when a Minnesota Attorney General’s Office investigator called Neighbors’ publicly listed phone number, an employee told the investigator that Neighbors was serving food and beverages on-premises.

The attorney general’s civil complaint also contained the following background information about COVID-19:

From Oct. 4 to Nov. 14, the 14-day COVID-19 case rate in Mille Lacs County more than tripled.

The on-premises consumption of food and beverages at bars and restaurants in Minnesota continues to pose substantial risks to public health and safety.

State health officials contend bars and restaurants pose a particularly high risk of COVID-19 transmission because they allow people to gather and congregate around people from different households to eat and drink without face coverings, often for extended periods of interaction.

Individuals cannot remain masked while they are eating and drinking, and many people leave their masks off in bars and restaurants while talking, the complaint stated.

Minnesota Department of Health’s contact tracing investigations have shown that apart from long term care settings, bars and restaurants are among the settings most frequently associated with COVID-19 outbreaks in Minnesota.

“I know it’s tough out there for businesses and employees and help is already on the way — but what these establishments are doing is wrong,” Ellison said in a statement. “Not just wrong in breaking the law — wrong in exposing their loved ones, their customers, their employees, their communities, and potentially every Minnesotan to COVID-19.”

Walz’s latest order has met opposition statewide with bar and restaurant owners, even though the executive action is designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In the lawsuits, Ellison’s office asks the courts for restitution and fines of up to $25,000 for violating the executive order.

“We’re asking the small percentage of bars and restaurants that have opened for inside dining and drinking to stop and comply with the executive order,” Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said in a news release.

Harrington added: “Thousands of our neighbors have died from COVID-19 in Minnesota. That should be enough of a reminder that the health of our communities has to come first. Bars and restaurants that don’t abide by the law will face the consequences of their actions.”

Suspension notices were sent via email and certified email on Dec. 16 to the two establishments.

Ellison’s office said Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton has since voluntarily complied with the executive order.

Neighbors on the Rum transitioned to curbside and takeout Thursday, Dec. 17, said Owner Joe Holtz in a telephone interview the following day.

Earlier this year, Neighbors completed a renovation project on the south side of the building, Holtz said.

“We added a patio, a huge lot for motorcycle parking and about a 2,000 square-foot patio,” he said.

Holtz said he defied Walz’s executive order because his employees needed help. “They are hurting so badly right now. We have done everything the state has asked. This last executive order and shutdown is over the top. It’s not warranted.”

He added: “We try to do absolutely everything correctly. We have the cleanest facilities in the state, we wear masks, and we take every precaution we can.”

Holtz said there are current studies that show 74% of people who are infected with COVID-19 contract the virus in living rooms.

“And, a new study shows that only 1.4% of the cases are a result of transmission in bars,” he added. “Our staff is clean and fresh and sanitized and we are masking.”

People are going to go out, even in the midst of a pandemic, Holtz said.

“They need to meet socially to survive,” he said. “This is a survival thing for people and a mental health thing.”

And as a bar and restaurant owner, Holtz said his recent actions aren’t just financially based. He needs to think about the mental health of his employees every day.

“I have a cook who needs to work every day, and if I’m closed and don’t have any business, we can’t afford to pay our labor.”

Neighbors on the Rum in Princeton has 12 to 15 employees, Holtz said.

“One of my servers has a 4-year-old son,” Holtz said. “She can’t afford Christmas this year. I made the decision to open up on Tuesday night, Dec. 15, mainly because after I found out the Mayo Clinic has a dine-in restaurant in its facilities.”

Holtz contends it’s possibly to go into the Mayo Clinic with the COVID-19 virus and transmit it.

“If this is so bad, why do they allow a restaurant to be open in a hospital?” he asked. “That, and bars in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport being open swayed my decision. You can fly internationally out of MSP and you can eat and drink and sit there for two hours before a flight.”

Holtz said he and his wife talked at length before making their decision and a stand.

“Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is on my [expletive] right now, but I want my employees to know I care,” Holtz said. “I wake up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and my heart is hurting. My employees are getting smoked by this. They are going to go broke.”

By opening up for a single day, Holtz said one of his servers made a whopping $1,200 in tips.

“It was amazing how much this helped my employees,” he added. “That made my decision right. Obviously, I have a fight with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office over this, but we had no choice other than to make a stand.”

Last weekend, Neighbors on the Run opened for patio service, and Holtz said one of his ideas was getting fish houses out in the parking lot as customer shelters.

“We started serving people out there Saturday,” he said. “That’s why I stopped what I was doing, so I would not get an injunction from the attorney general’s office. I wanted to make a one-day stand with this. I did not have any intention of opening the second day. I know I was in violation of the executive order.”

Holtz said his well-publicized action represented a peaceful protest.

“I wanted to do it for my customers and community,” he said, adding: “If I would have pushed [staying open], I would have had more legal battles, and would not be able to open for patio seating, which is stupid and a slap in the face.”

Holtz said Walz is throwing bar and restaurant owners crumbs regarding outdoor dining.

“We have to take them to survive. It should be wide open. If you can dine in a hospital [at the Mayo Clinic] you should be able to dine at Neighbor’s on the Rum in Princeton.”

Holtz contends that if Walz is going to shut the state’s bars and restaurants down, he should go full bore and do so for 60 days.

“Let’s get this pandemic done,” Holtz said. “Right now, we are spending money to buy plastic shields, self-serve condiments, silverware, and other expensive items.

Doing so adds a dollar of cost to almost any meal his restaurant staff produces, Holtz contends.

“Our business is down 92% from October, when we were still operating,” Holtz reported. “Curbside isn’t going to close the gap totally, but we need people to come and tip our servers well. It’s still Christmas. Please try and support us until we fully open and wholeheartedly support us after we do open,” he added.

Minnesota GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka held a press conference Thursday afternoon, Dec. 17, alongside several restaurant owners to ask Walz to allow restaurants and bars to open for indoor service.

Gazelka called the extension of the executive order the “nail in the coffin” for businesses struggling to survive during the shutdown.

Business owners disagreed with state health officials’ assessment that restaurants and bars contribute to worsening community spread of the virus and emphasized the negative impact of the closures on their employees and their families.

During the press conference, Gazelka said businesses defying the executive order are doing so out of desperation.

The Republican senator threatened to cut the budget of the attorney general’s office for imposing fines on establishments that defy the order and serve customers indoors.

“I want to remind [Ellison] that next year, we set a two-year budget and the legislative branch sets his budget,” he said. “We’re going to look at how many $10,000 fines he’s inflicted on these people that are absolutely desperate, and I’m going to expect that to come out of his budget.”

Sen Andrew Mathews (R-Princeton) issued a press release Dec. 17 calling on Harrington to immediately reinstate the liquor license for Neighbors on the Rum.

“They have violated no statute or ordinance, only the tyrannical Gov. Walz’s Executive Order 20-99,” Mathews stated.

He added: “Every day we keep pretending executive orders have the same force of law as statutes, and that we can punish citizens solely based on the decrees of one ruler, is an affront to our Constitutional system.”

Mathews contends Walz’s orders have not been passed into law by the legislature, and they are destroying the lives and livelihoods of Minnesotans.

Mathews also called for Ellison to immediately drop his lawsuit against Neighbors and reinstate its liquor license.

“Neighbors -- or any other bar or restaurant -- should never be punished for trying to put food on their tables,” Mathews said.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Sunday reported 2,528 confirmed new infections and said 70 more people died of complications due to COVID-19.

Also on Sunday, the state’s COVID-19 totals stood at 397,319 positive cases and 4,850 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

While case growth has somewhat declined in recent weeks, daily deaths have climbed.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Minnesota has risen over the past two weeks from more than 45 deaths per day Dec. 2 to nearly 67 per day Dec. 16, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Editor’s Note: This story contains material from the Associated Press.

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