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After warning from state, cafe chooses to close rather than follow COVID-19 rules

The shop said it doesn't 'buy into' the 'hype' about the virus.

A coffee shop in southern Minnesota says it is closing until further notice after the state issued it a warning for not complying with Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 rules for dine-in service.

The Coffee Nest, located in Jackson, announced the closure Tuesday in a viral Facebook post, saying the state visited the coffee shop after someone filed a complaint, with an inspection report forwarded to BMTN showing the store was found to be in non-compliance with "all" the rules set out in the Stay Safe MN guidance for bars, restaurants, and cafes.

This included no face mask wearing among employees or patrons, no health and safety protocols for employees, no social distancing between tables, and no adherence to the limits on people-per-table.

In the now-deleted Facebook post, Coffee Nest said: "We believe that differing opinions are OK. If you choose to believe all the hype we respect that, we just don’t buy into it. We respect that there is a virus, we just don’t believe what they’d like us to."

The Coffee Nest also said it believes the governor has overreached his powers.

"We live by faith not fear and we refuse to let this virus keep us hidden away in fear. We choose to live. We respect your right to stay home if you don’t agree with how we’re running our business. Unfortunately, not all people believe that. Someone felt the need to turn us in. As a result, we are shut down until further notice," the post said.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) confirmed to BMTN that staff conducted an inspection at the Coffee Nest on Sept. 8 due to a complaint it received. Staff issued an inspection report with correction orders and explained the enforcement process to the business, Julie Bartkey, public information officer with MDH, said.

MDH staff went back on Friday to do a follow-up inspection, but the business was closed, Bartkey said, adding the health department didn't close the shop, they chose to do so on their own.

In a subsequent Facebook post, Coffee Nest owner Rebecca Nestegard claimed the state threatened "fines, imprisonment, loss of licenses, etc.," which led to the store deciding to "lock the door and stay closed until further notice." 

"We weren’t given much for options, but we did choose to close over the threat of those things," the post said.

In a statement to BMTN, Nestegard said she believes the COVID-19 mandates are "illegal and unconstitutional" and said that she and her husband were taking a "stand for freedom" by closing their doors rather than complying.

"While we understand the financial risks involved, we have faith that we will be supported by our community when we are able to reopen," she said. "The outpouring of support from near and far has been unimaginable, and for that we are grateful."

Inspector found 9 COVID-19 violations

The Coffee Nest shared a copy of the inspection letter from the state, which said MDH received a complaint on Sept. 1 concerning employees and patrons not wearing masks and too many people in the shop. MDH staff visited the restaurant on Sept. 2, but a sign on the door said it was closed through Sept. 7, so the staff member visited on Sept. 8.

The inspection letter lists nine executive order violations observed by the staff member, how the restaurant can comply with the order and when they need to comply. Among the violations:

  • Employees and patrons not wearing masks, with the inspector noting no employees were wearing masks and did not comply on-site when requested to.
  • There was no signage stating mask requirements.
  • Tables were closer than 6 feet apart.
  • There were groups larger than four people (six if they're in the same household) sitting together - the inspector found nine ladies were sitting together.
  • No reservations (advanced or walk-in) were being taken as required, with the restaurant saying they don't take reservations.
  • Lack of health and safety protocols/checks for employees, with the owner noting only family members are working at this time.
  • There was no COVID-19 preparedness plan as required.

MDH's Bartkey shared the health department's inspection process with BMTN, saying:

"We conduct an inspection. If violations of the Executive Orders are observed, they are issued orders with a compliance date of the same day.

"We conduct a follow-up inspection the next day to determine compliance. If they’re not in compliance, another inspection report and orders is issued. We then request approval to do a Cease & Desist Order from the Executive Office.

"We conduct another follow-up inspection on the day after we receive the Cease & Desist approval to determine compliance. If they’re not in compliance we issue the C&D which closes them for up to 72 hours.

"If they feel they are in compliance at any time during that 72 hours, they contact us and we conduct a follow-up inspection. If they are in compliance, we lift the C&D order.

"If they don’t close or aren’t in compliance after the 72 hour time period, we work with the Attorney General’s Office to determine what next steps are necessary."

Once a case is referred to the Attorney General's office, a person who "willfully violates" the executive order could face prosecution for a misdemeanor, which can result in a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

Indoor venues such as bars and restaurants have been found to present favorable conditions for the transmission of COVID-19, with outbreaks of the virus having been linked back to more than two-dozen establishments in Minnesota in recent months.

BMTN asked Coffee Nest why they chose to close instead of complying with the rules and making their objections public in another way, but it has not responded.

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Compliance rate is about half

Nearly half of the 167 bars and restaurants that were recently checked for COVID-19 safety requirements were not in compliance with state guidelines, according to reports. 

MDH in late August said officials would increase compliance checks at restaurants and bars following an increase in COVID-19 outbreaks that were traced back to these types of establishments, as well as large gatherings. 

According to KARE 11, state officials conducted compliance checks in Mankato, St. Peter, Waseca, Faribault and New Ulm on Aug. 28-29 and in Carver and Scott counties on Sept. 4-5.

MDH reported 88 establishments followed the requirements, while 79 were found not in compliance (they had one or more minor violations), KARE 11 states. Meanwhile, of those that were not in compliance, 31 bars and restaurants were referred to follow-up inspections for issues like lack of mask use and failing to maintain social distancing, the Star Tribune said.

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