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Gov. Walz and Ag. Ellison twiddle as Minnesota’s small businesses burn

I sometimes feel blessed to be a Generation Xer. It means that I missed disco on the one side and ’emo’ on the other. It means that Cheers taught me the value of a bar “where everybody knows your name”: that the Beastie Boys taught me that ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)‘: and that I was inspired by Kevin Bacon’s brave struggle to overturn John Lithgow’s dancing ban in Footloose.

All of these popped into my head this weekend when I read about Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady’s Hometown Tavern in Albany and five other bars in the area. These have all been closed since March 16th in accordance with Gov. Walz’ executive orders, but Mr. Schiffler says he plans to reopen his Albany bar this afternoon and the other five on Wednesday. WCCO reports:

“I can end up broke and on the street, just like 163 employees of mine are going to do the same thing in a little bit here if we don’t get operating,” Schiffler said.

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka said Sunday night that he will not be enforcing the stay safe order, but instead will “educate and ask for compliance.”

Enter Minnesota’s very own John Lithgow, State Attorney General Keith Ellison. He announced that he’s prepared a lawsuit for Stearns County District Court asking for an emergency court injunction and a $25,000 fine to stop the opening. In a statement he said:

My office has the duty to enforce the law and the Governor’s order, to protect Minnesotans’ health, and to protect businesses that are complying with the order from unfair competition. I take that duty seriously.

Ag. Ellison is quite correct that he has a duty to enforce the law. He is, however, also on record as saying “Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right” in reference to President Trump’s executive orders.

My point is not to debate the legality of Mr. Schiffler’s actions or whether they are ‘just’ in some sense beyond the legal: the question of whether it is right to disobey an unjust law – or executive order – is one best addressed over a drink in the bar, if they ever reopen.

What I want to take issue with is Ag. Ellison’s claim that he “has the duty…to protect businesses that are complying with the order from unfair competition.”

Where, for example, was the protection for Hub Hobby, which was shut down by Gov. Walz’ executive order, from the unfair competition of Target, which was allowed to remain open? Where is the protection for Minnesota’s smaller candy stores from the unfair competition of its largest candy store, which got special permission from the Governor to reopen? Where is the protection for massage therapists, who are closed by executive order, from the unfair competition of chiropractors, who are open and can legally provide exactly the same massage with, presumably, exactly the same risk of transmitting Covid-19?

Gov. Walz likes to talk about ‘turning the dials’, as though the state is some big Crock-Pot and we’re all tater tots. This is intended to convey the idea that there is some grand systematic plan for reopening the state’s economy which applies equally to all and which Ag. Ellison is fearlessly enforcing by standing up to the ‘big business’ and ‘dark money’ behind Shady’s Hometown Tavern.

But there isn’t. Look at the businesses which are allowed to open and the ones which aren’t. Ask yourself why you are immune from catching Covid-19 if you’re in the Mall of America, which can reopen, and not in a church, which can’t. Looking for a plan here is as useful as looking for the Mona Lisa in a Jackson Pollock (the closest to a rule of thumb seems to be ‘the bigger the business the better its treatment’). Ag. Ellison will know that we are all supposed to equal before the law, but where can we see that here? Instead, this random knob twiddling is only adding to the uncertainty which is crippling Minnesota’s small businesses.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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