Minnesota Bar Owner Fights System Over Shutdowns

January 12, 2021 Updated: January 18, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS—Bar and restaurant owner Lisa Monet Zarza made a decision in November to go all-in. She’s prepared to lose her businesses and go to jail in the fight to keep her bar operating and her staff employed.

Zarza, the co-owner of Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, is currently being threatened with jail time, $3,000-per-day fines, and suspension of her food and liquor licenses as she opens her bar against Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.

For nine months, like other bar and restaurant owners, Zarza has had to do flip-flops to keep up with the different executive orders issued by Walz, a Democrat, during the pandemic. In mid-March of last year, Walz declared the state in a peacetime emergency for 30 days and has renewed the status each month since, giving himself broad authority.

Alibi was closed in mid-March, initially for two weeks, although the closures were extended until June 1.

On June 1, the governor allowed outside-only dining, then, on June 10, allowed for 50 percent capacity inside; followed by open inside at 50 percent capacity but closed by 10 p.m. from Nov. 13; a week later, on Nov. 20, they were completely closed again; then on Dec. 18 reopened for outdoor-only dining.

Since Jan. 11, indoor dining at 50 percent capacity until 10 p.m. was declared allowable.

“They shut us down with a two-week ‘flatten the curve’ promise. And it was two and a half months,” Zarza told The Epoch Times on Dec. 30, 2020. “That first shutdown was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as the second one—I think because we kept getting hope.”

While the business was closed, they saw casinos open, airport bars and restaurants open, retail stores open, and businesses in neighboring states open.

When the first shutdown began on St. Patrick’s Day last year, there were 54 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of 5.6 million, according to Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

“We need to take these temporary actions to flatten the outbreak curve, so we can avoid stretching our healthcare system too much,” Malcolm stated in a March 16 statement.

Nine months later, when the order to close again came down, Zarza had had enough and reopened fully on Dec. 16.

“You can’t take something that belongs to me and threaten me with jail time,” she said. “So they’re trying to take my liquor license. They’re trying to take my food service license. They served me with the temporary restraining order. They served me with a cease and desist.”

On Dec. 18, she was served a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction to close down;  a court hearing was set for the following week.

“The temporary injunction would prevent her from operating the business,” Zarza’s lawyer, Mike Paddon, said. “If she operated that business, she’d be in violation of a court order and could be actually arrested. That’s what’s scary. For contempt of court.”

In deference to the judge, Zarza closed Alibi for the hearing, after which she was told she’d have a decision the following day. A week later, she heard back—the judge upheld the temporary injunction—but she decided to reopen anyway, on New Year’s Eve, the third anniversary of the restaurant opening.

“You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t,” Paddon said. “They keep moving the goalposts.”

Paddon is arguing that there is no evidence that bars and restaurants are a significant cause of COVID-19 spread, despite Walz’s claims. His second argument is under the Constitution’s equal protection clause, it’s impermissible that other businesses are allowed to be open, but Zarza’s isn’t. And the third argument is that the government is taking away Zarza’s right to operate her business without just compensation.

Epoch Times Photo
Lisa Monet Zarza, owner of Alibi Drinkery in her bar in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, Minn., on Dec. 30, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Zarza said the science has been politicized and not applied equally.

“It’s like going to school and the teacher telling you the first day one plus one is two, and the next day one plus one is three. And the next day one plus one is four. And the next day, they’re going to say one plus one is what? And you’re like, we have no idea what it is because I thought one plus one was two, but it’s not,” she said.

She has been vocal about reopening against the governor’s orders as she wanted to get as much community support behind her as possible, especially as retail stores had been allowed to open since before Black Friday.

“Menards has a sign that says their occupancy is 7,000 people,” Zarza said, referring to the mega sporting and outdoors chain. “And I’m sorry, but our bar holds 100 people. And they all have the right to be here.

“The Constitution guarantees your rights. So, if you don’t feel safe going into my restaurant, don’t come in. If you feel safe coming into my restaurant, come in.”

Walz said in May that “while the virus won’t yet allow for business as usual,” he encouraged people to patronize restaurants over the summer.

“Our restaurants and bars are an integral part of the social fabric of Minnesota, and it has been heartbreaking to see this pandemic wreak havoc on our hospitality industry,” he said in a May 20 statement.

Struggling Staff

Zarza employs 22 people at Alibi, about half of whom are single parents.

“Our staff couldn’t survive,” she said.

“There’s five or six staff members here that have two jobs, both those jobs are in the restaurant industry. Those are just five of the single parents that we have that support their family 100 percent. And they lost all sources of income from that shut down.

“It was horrible. And when we opened. there were a lot that said they couldn’t come back because they were afraid that they’re going to get arrested, they’re afraid they’re going to get fined. Because if you read the executive order, [Walz] was saying he’d come after anyone that was working. So we’ve got probably about half of our staff that came back on the 16th when we opened.”

Zarza estimates that she lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue in 2020. The federal Paycheck Protection Program money she was able to access held her over for about a month, but wasn’t close to what she needed for such an extended loss of business.

During the shutdowns, Zarza opened Alibi for takeout and delivery, but kept her second restaurant closed. Alibi’s sales were at 5 percent of the projected sales between the two restaurants and only two staff members were required out of the 40 total.

“They asked us to change our business plan, they asked us to change who we were, they took away 38 people’s jobs. It just blows me away,” she said. “You don’t have the right to destroy our staff’s lives, our lives. What we’ve worked for. This is my life.”

Over the summer months that they were allowed to open for outside service, Zarza set up tables in the parking lot and business boomed. To initially reopen, she had to use her personal savings for food and alcohol orders, but over time, was able to put aside some money in preparation for the next shutdown. Her customers were generous with their tips, which helped pull the front-of-house staff through. The cash donations she received went to the cooks as Christmas bonuses.

“They all got money so that they could—at that point, it’s not even at the point of buying your kids Christmas presents, it was buying groceries,” she said.

Zarza’s business model is based around being a community bar, which was apparent as Alibi opened at 11 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. By 11:30 a.m., the place was bustling, with staff and customers happy to see each other again.

However, that didn’t come without a cost. Two days later, Zarza came to work to see graffiti all over her building, including “Fascist bar” written in large blue letters along her front windows and “Nazis” along the side wall.

Epoch Times Photo
Graffiti along the front windows of Alibi Drinkery in the Minneapolis metro area, Minn., on Jan. 3, 2021. (Courtesy of Lisa Monet Zarza)

“Some of the messages that I’ve gotten from people—horrible, horrible, horrible messages—like ‘I hope you die,’ ‘I hope your family dies,'” Zarza said. “I’ve been followed, I’ve been threatened, just because I want to open my business.

“Every single season, we see something else that’s trying to tear apart America, and we’re supposed to be standing together and fighting together.

“That’s what I see this whole pandemic is—it was one more way for them to segregate America. And it’s just so sad.”

On Jan. 7, a judge issued Zarza a $3,000-per-day fine if she opened again, and she felt forced to close the doors. That is, until Walz’s executive order allowed the reopening of restaurants on Jan. 11, at 50 percent capacity.

“Given the fact that Defendant is purposely promoting its violation of the injunction, exposing a multitude of patrons at the establishment, the fine should be in an amount to achieve compliance,” the judge wrote.

For now, Alibi is open, but Zarza is bracing for the next battle.

“It sounds like you’re in Germany, it sounds like you’re in Russia, it sounds like you’re in a communist country, when you say you’re going to go to jail for opening your business,” she said.

On Dec. 28, the Star Tribune listed 94 restaurants in the Twin Cities that had permanently shuttered after a year of shutdowns and riots devastated the region. The list was far from comprehensive, but was still about triple the number reported in 2019.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo