ST. PAUL — After Republican state legislators questioned his methods of enforcing Gov. Tim Walz's coronavirus emergency orders, Attorney General Keith Ellison has responded saying it is his duty to "do everything within (his) power to protect Minnesotans" from the novel virus.
Ellison's Tuesday, May 19, letter comes after lawmakers on Sunday questioned his enforcement of Walz's "stay safe" orders for non-essential businesses to remain closed or open at reduced capacities in hopes of reducing the spread of the virus. Legislators argued that businesses are already in vulnerable financial positions after weeks of lost business, and hefty fines for violating Walz's orders would only do more harm.
"(I)t is my hope that all businesses comply with the law and the Governor’s Executive Orders. I have no wish to collect fines from any of them," Ellison said Tuesday. "Fortunately, the vast majority of the 600,000 businesses registered in Minnesota with the Secretary of State are choosing to abide by the law at this unprecedented time and protect their communities; only a handful of them are violating or threatening to violate the law and endanger their communities."
The Legislators' Sunday letter was spurred by a rift between the Attorney General's Office and one chain of Minnesota bars, Shady's, which had vowed to reopen on Monday, May 18, at noon in spite of Walz's orders. Ellison said on Sunday his office had spoken with the bar's owner Kris Schiffler after hearing word of his plans to reopen, and Schiffler at first agreed to abide. Then, Ellison said he switched course, publicly declaring he would reopen anyway, facing a potential $25,000 fine for each of his six locations.
Ellison's office on Sunday night filed a lawsuit against Shady's, saying reopening early "would be both dangerous to the public health and in violation of (Walz's executive order)." Just before Schiffler opened his doors Monday afternoon, Stearns County Judge William Cashman issued a restraining order, barring him from opening. A court hearing is scheduled for Friday.
Legislators in their Sunday letter said businesses in Greater Minnesota should not be held to the same standards as those in the seven-county metro, with its greater population density and number of positive cases.
Ellison retorted Tuesday that "no one and no area of Minnesota is immune to COVID-19," and 10 Greater Minnesota counties have greater than 100 confirmed cases. One of those counties is Stearns County, which has emerged as a hotspot with a greater rate of cases-per-capita than both Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. Shady's six locations lie within or near Stearns County.
"I am also very concerned about the ability of health systems across Greater Minnesota to handle any spike in COVID-19 cases," Ellison said Tuesday.
Ellison has stood firm since Walz first exerted emergency executive power in March that the governor's actions have been constitutional, including on Tuesday after a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate filed a federal lawsuit against Walz.
"Thus to your question of whether I intend to continue to do my duty to protect Minnesotans from COVID-19, educate businesses about their responsibility to do so, and protect businesses that do comply with the law, the answer is yes," Ellison wrote Tuesday.
Ellison clarified Tuesday that while his office can pursue legal action against violators, it's not his office that imposes fines — that's up to a court. Legislators, who help draft the state's budget, threatened to cut funding from the Attorney General's Office should Ellison pursue violators in court, to which he responded, "I humbly defer to the Legislature on matters regarding appropriation."
"No one wants to delay the safe, responsible reopening of Minnesota businesses any longer than necessary," Ellison concluded. "I ask for your partnership in creating bridges between Minnesotans, not wedges, so that we can save lives, remain as healthy as possible, and come through this crisis together stronger and more unified than we as Minnesotans have ever been before."