U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber has once again called on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to put an end to his executive order restricting businesses during the pandemic.

Stauber, who co-owns Duluth Hockey Company with his brothers, has long been critical of the governor’s orders. “Rather than continuing to make our small businesses and families dependent on government relief, Congressman Stauber believes it is past time for Governor Walz to lift his harmful shutdown, allow Minnesota’s small businesses to reopen, and give Minnesotans back their God-given right to work,” Kelsey Mix, the congressman’s communications manager, wrote in an email to the Mesabi Tribune on Tuesday afternoon.

The comments came after Stauber’s campaign team took to Twitter to highlight an article published in the Duluth News Tribune about the state Health Department citing M.B.’s Little Gourmet Deli in Virginia for violating the governor’s most recent order.

“We need to focus on safely re-opening our small businesses, not harassing them,” the tweet read.

The citing

The Minnesota Health Department on Monday announced it issued cease-and-desist orders and notices of license suspension to several restaurants across the state, including M.B.’s Little Gourmet Deli, “after determining that the facilities had violated executive orders designed to protect their employees, customers and communities from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a state report dated Dec. 23. The state said that a health inspector visited the deli and found “the establishment was open for on-premises consumption of food and beverage” and “an employee was working without a mask,” in violation of the order.

Mary Petruska, who owns the local deli, told the Duluth News Tribune that she had not opened for dine-in services yet did not stop a customer when they sat down to eat on their own. Petruska said she would comply with the order, though she questioned the governor’s actions in a time when regional businesses are struggling to financially survive the pandemic. “I understand people are getting sick, but I just don’t understand how so many people can go into the big-box stores and nothing happens to them, but if you come in here, you’re going to get in trouble,” she told the newspaper. “It’s just not fair.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday afternoon, Petruska declined to speak with the Mesabi Tribune on the matter.

The impacts of the governor’s executive orders

It was two weeks ago when Walz extended his executive order to limit dining services across the state. His updated four-week order restricted bars and restaurants from serving customers indoors and limits outdoor dining. “The executive order was issued at a time of rapid acceleration in the spread of COVID-19 across Minnesota and sought to protect Minnesotans while also preventing hospitals and health care systems from becoming overwhelmed by the surge in cases,” the state Health Department’s report read.

In recent weeks, several Range-based restaurant owners, including those from BoomTown Brewery and Woodfire Grill, Palmers Tavern, and Adventures Bar and Restaurant and Sawmill Saloon told the Mesabi Tribune that they have suffered 30 to 90 percent losses in business and having to lay off numerous workers.

They all expressed the need to reopen or have access to grant programs. Despite their frustrations, most of the business owners said they had been following federal and state guidelines regarding mask-wearing and social distancing to curb the number of cases in the area. All the owners interviewed said they planned to abide by the governor’s latest round of restrictions, in both an effort to keep their patrons safe and also to not face the ramifications that can result in thousands of dollars worth in fines.

M.B.’s Little Gourmet Deli is the first known eatery on the Range to receive a cease-and-desist order from the state mandating that staff abide by the orders within 72 hours or run into the potential of paying $10,000 in fines.

MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff said in the Dec. 23 report that enforcement actions are a last resort against bars and restaurants.

“COVID-19 protocols are designed to slow the spread of this virus and reduce the impacts of this pandemic,” Huff said. “Our preference is always to work with business to bring them into compliance, and we consider regulatory actions as a last resort. The vast majority of businesses are doing their best to help slow down the spread of COVID-19, and we owe it to them to have a consistent and fair enforcement approach.”

COVID-19 cases

Data from the Minnesota Health Department shows restaurants and bars have outpaced other settings for formal outbreaks and where infected persons told contact tracers they visited before becoming sick. But health officials caution that the actual numbers could be different because of a high rate of unknown community transmission.

The Minnesota Health Department on Tuesday offered a “mix of hope and uncertainty,” according to Minnesota Public Radio, as the new daily case counts fell below 1,000 for the first time since early October. But the drop in cases came on low testing and delays from the long holiday weekend. Nonetheless, the death toll continues to rise and state health officials continue to advocate for mask-wearing and socially distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

St. Louis County reported 34 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the totals to 12,360 cases, 694 hospitalizations and 198 deaths. On the Range, the small town of Hibbing tallied up a total of 1,020 cases; Virginia, 548; Chisholm; 320; Eveleth, 317; and Mountain Iron, 184.

Congressman weighs in

The Mesabi Tribune on Tuesday sent an email to Stauber’s team asking them to clarify his position on the governor’s order, whether he believed the state’s cease-and-desist imposed on violating businesses was a form of “harassing” business owners as the tweet read, and if he agreed with state officials who report the restrictions are contributing to the reduction in coronavirus cases.

In response, Mix wrote in email that same day that Stauber, a Republican, has been “a fierce advocate for a safe reopening of our economy” since the Democratic governor issued his orders. “Through these closures, the governor has been picking winners and losers in business,” she added. “There is no logical reason as to why Minnesota’s small businesses should remain closed, while so many big corporate retailers are allowed to remain open.” She added, “Stauber has frequently and consistently urged the governor to allow Minnesota’s businesses to safely reopen and will continue to push him to do so.”

The Mesabi Tribune also asked the team how Stauber has helped bar and restaurant owners during the pandemic.

Mix noted that the congressman “helped pass the CARES Act, and through this legislation, the Paycheck Protection Program was created.” Since the PPP’s expiration in August, she continued, he “fought for the passage” of House Bill 8265 to “unleash the over $180 billion in unused Paycheck Protection Program funds that have been sitting idle.” She accused Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of refusing to bring the legislation to the House floor.

Mix also noted Stauber’s approval of last week’s federal passage of the COVID-19 relief package, which Trump signed into law over the weekend. “This package will specifically provide over $284 billion to reopen and strengthen the Paycheck Protection Program, helping more of Minnesota’s small businesses remain open and keep their employees on payroll,” she wrote. She added that he voted for legislation to increase stimulus checks to $2,000 per person.

Stauber’s team did not comment on his opinion of whether restrictions of bars and restaurants were linked to the reduction in coronavirus cases, as state health officials have stated.

He has long supported small business owners, but he has not always followed suggestions from federal and state health officials who recommend that people wear masks and social distance. He has reportedly appeared maskless during several of his campaign stumps across the Eighth Congressional District, both indoors and outdoors.

Back in October, Stauber joined Minnesota Representatives Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn when boarding a Delta flight from Washington D.C. after being exposed to COVID-19 positive individuals such as President Donald Trump. At the time, the congressman told the Mesabi Tribune that he was “disappointed with the very public and clearly partisan shaming that is being carried out by some of my fellow Members of Congress from Minnesota, who quickly jumped to conclusions and did not take the time to review the facts of the situation.”

Despite federal and state guidelines calling for quarantine, he continued to make public appearances, some maskless, at a time when northern Minnesota was reporting a spike in coronavirus cases. He maintained that he had sought advice from the Office of Attending Physician of the House of Representatives.

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