The Potluck

Gazelka, restaurant owners attack Walz’s pandemic restrictions

By: - December 17, 2020 9:05 pm

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and restaurant owners urged Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday to lift restrictions on indoor dining, calling the regulations overly strict and unmanageable for small businesses.

The news conference came a day after Walz announced that some of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on gyms, youth sports and elementary schools would be loosened, while restaurants and bars will be barred from offering indoor dining through the holidays. Outdoor dining at limited capacities will be permitted, an allowance that one restaurant owner called a “slap in the face” during the winter months.

“I feel like I’m on the Titanic, and this governor is making us a third-class citizen that has to be in the bottom of the ship,” said Jeff LaBeau, owner of the Depot Bar and Grill in Faribault. “He wants to drown us.”

Restaurant owners said they’re at risk of going out of business if the restrictions continue, which would put their employees out of work. LaBeau said he worries for his 50 employees and their families, and took $250,000 out of his retirement fund in hopes of keeping his business afloat.

Gazelka and restaurant owners repeatedly cast doubt on public health officials’ assertions that indoor dining poses a high risk for spreading COVID-19. Research has shown that indoors the virus that causes COVID-19 can travel further than 6 feet and infect someone in fewer than 15 minutes. 

They also expressed frustrations that restaurants and bars in neighboring states, like Wisconsin and the Dakotas, have remained open. 

“Why is the science different in Wisconsin?” Gazelka said. “Why does the science there tell them that they can be open?”

Roughly 150 businesses have said they’d reopen this week in defiance of Walz’s executive orders, according to the group ReOpen Minnesota, and a handful have followed through so far. 

As Walz announced the changes to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday, Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville was packed with maskless patrons. Attorney General Keith Ellison has sued Alibi and another restaurant, Princeton’s Neighbors on the Rum, and intends to suspend their liquor licenses.

Gazelka said the restaurants’ decisions to reopen is an act of desperation. He criticized the $10,000 fine Ellison issued to a restaurant that repeatedly violated the state’s restrictions.

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

Minnesota Republicans have criticized Walz’s COVID-19 restrictions for months, with Senate Republicans voting multiple times to end Walz’s emergency powers.

In November, multiple state Republicans, including Gazelka tested positive for COVID-19 following indoor election parties hosted by both the House and Senate GOP.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.