Threats and Costs: Overlooked Aspects of Minnesota Executive Order 20-96 Imposing COVID Restrictions on Bars, Restaurants, and Gatherings

ON TUESDAY NOVEMBER 10, 2020, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz responded to the “unrelenting, broad community spread” of COVID-19 in upper Midwestern states, including Minnesota.  Gov. Walz issued Executive Order 20-96 in order to respond to record trends reported in the state in the last few weeks. Multiple daily records of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to Gov. Walz, require the need for immediate action. As the governor stated, Minnesota’s four neighboring states (Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota) all have the largest population-adjusted statewide increases in the nation during the first week of November, which illustrates the potential for Minnesota to further spiral into dangerous territory.

Executive Order 20-96 focuses on curtailing those areas that the Minnesota Department of Health has identified as the most significant sources of community spread: social gatherings like concerts, but also including gatherings at private homes; celebrations like weddings and funerals; and bars and restaurants. The Order plainly spells out the restrictions on those types of gatherings and businesses. There are opinions on both sides of this issue and, many times, they fall on either side of the political aisle.

An issue that many overlook in connection with this new Order, however, is new language in the enforcement portion of the Order. Prior Executive Orders stated individual violations are punishable with a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, violators could receive a fine up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to 90 days. For business owners, managers or supervisors that require or encourage violations of the order, they could be guilty of a gross misdemeanor and punished with up to a $3,000 fine and up to one year in prison. Violators can also be assessed civil penalties of up to $25,000 per occurrence. Finally, the state can close businesses or impact licenses for violations. None of those penalties changed in Executive Order 20-96, but the enforcement provision now specifically gives the Attorney General, as well as city and county attorneys, the authority to investigate actual or threatened violations.  Further, in addition to the stated potential penalties, violators could be responsible to repay the “costs of investigation and reasonable attorney’s fees and costs” incurred in the investigation and litigation.

So, to those individuals, owners, operators, and managers that turn a blind eye or otherwise encourage violation of Executive Order 20-96: BE WARNED! Not only are you potentially facing criminal punishment, civil fines, business closure and license suspension for actual violations, you could be investigated for threatened violations. And, you may be forced to pay the costs of the investigation and the government’s attorneys’ fees and costs to prosecute you.