Stearns County taking an education-first approach to restaurants, bars that reopen early

Businesses that continue to violate the order could face stiff penalties.
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Law enforcement officials in Stearns County are sticking with their education-first plan when it comes to enforcing businesses that violate Gov. Tim Walz's executive orders. 

Multiple restaurants and bars in the county shared plans to reopen on Monday, May 18, prior to the governor's decision to not extend the stay-at-home order. Walz did continue the ban on dine-in restaurants and bars until at least June 1, and it seems some establishments still plan to open their doors before it is allowed.

"If these businesses were to open on Monday, I would like to remind people it is your choice to do what is best for you and your health," Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka said in a news release on May 15. "Our goal is to work with the community and not against them. We want everyone to be safe and healthy."

The sheriff's office's plan when responding to businesses that violate the governor's orders will continue to be "respectful education, explanation and asking for cooperation and compliance," the release says.

The sheriff's office says this approach has been successful so far and people have been understanding. 

However, if a business refuses to close when asked, the sheriff's office will file a police report and the activity will be documented. This could result in state-level licensing issues for establishments through Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement of the Department of Labor Industries. The business could also face regulatory actions at the county or city level regarding licensing and civil fines of up to $25,000 per day, misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor criminal charges and other fees and fines. 

"While we understand the need to open and survive as a business owner, we also cannot endorse or advocate for the open defiance of an order issued by the state," Soyka said. "We cannot begin to understand the level of difficulty this has placed upon you and trying to stay in business.

"If a business can abide by the order for an additional 10 days until such time the state allows you to open, we strongly encourage you to do so," he added.

In Melrose, where some bars have said they plan to reopen early, Police Chief Craig Maus is taking a similar approach to enforcement. 

"We understand and want our small businesses to survive during this time and thrive when things open back up," Maus told BMTN, noting they've asked any business that is planning to reopen to keep their customers and employees as safe as possible by practicing social distancing, increasing washing and sanitation of points of contact, using face masks and providing hand sanitizer for customers. 

That being said, the police department will be enforcing the governor's executive order with a verbal warning on the first offense. After that, the department will consider sending reports for review/prosecution. 

"Our businesses are aware of this and some are choosing to open and others are choosing to wait until things are lifted," Maus said. "We understand financially not everyone can make it another two weeks and they are choosing to open. We have a good understanding with the businesses we need to still do our job, but they need to survive as well."

Sheriff Soyka also recognizes the hardships businesses are facing during the pandemic, noting the sheriff's office has found itself in a "difficult situation" where it is balancing public safety and the requirements of the office with the livelihood of the public. 

"This is compounded by the fact the responsibility for enforcement lies with local authorities and has had or may have a negative impact on the relationships we have built as my office continues to focus on community relations and partnering with our Stearns County businesses and residents," Soyka said.

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