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Alibi Drinkery in Lakeville welcomed diners over the New Year's holiday, defying the governor's most recent executive order meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and an injunction requiring the establishment to shut down until Jan. 10.

The scenes at the restaurant, which has been packed at times with maskless diners and people drinking at the bar, bother Tyler Norkunas, who lives nearby and wonders why local law officers haven't stopped the gatherings amid the pandemic.

"I think [police] need to step in and take the reins," said Norkunas, 29. "It should be 'protect and serve' just like any normal circumstance."

Police departments have largely left enforcement of the order for businesses to the state Attorney General's Office as a handful of restaurants and bars open their doors to indoor diners across Minnesota. Though police have criminal enforcement authority, they've often played a supporting role to state agencies on the civil side, accompanying Minnesota Department of Health officials or monitoring whether restaurants are breaking the rules.

A spokesman from the Attorney General's Office said he didn't know of any instances of police enforcing the executive order against a business in Minnesota.

"[Local law enforcement] has the power," said John Stiles, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "I'm not aware that anyone's done it."

Several factors influence the role local law enforcement plays, including the attorney general's guidance that they should take an educational approach rather than a punitive one.

In Lakeville, the City Council has given clear direction that police should aim for "voluntary compliance" with masks and leave enforcement to the attorney general, said Police Chief Jeff Long. When people gathered at Alibi in December to protest the required shutdown, he said, Lakeville police were present and watching from a distance.

He said officers would have stepped in if protesters were violent or deliberately trying to spread COVID-19, but they didn't want to interrupt a peaceful protest. He also had to consider whether to put officers at risk of contracting COVID-19 in a crowd of maskless people, and he questioned whether anything officers said would've prompted people to put on masks.

"Why agitate a situation?" Long said. "Let them do what they're doing and [then] go away."

Both state and city officials said that they're breaking new ground as they deal with an unprecedented situation.

"It's new territory for everybody," Stiles said. "It's new territory for the Attorney General's Office in that there's been almost … no case law around executive orders in Minnesota."

Alibi is facing fines, the potential loss of its liquor license and the possibility of being held in contempt of court for failing to comply with the governor's order and the court mandate.

Education first

Booker Hodges, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department Public Safety, said members of local law enforcement have been "very helpful" partners in enforcement because state agencies don't have the resources to visit every Minnesota bar or restaurant that allegedly breaks the rules.

"Our approach and guidance that we've put out from the Department of Public Safety has always been education first," Hodges said. "And that has been very effective."

Minnesota statute gives sheriffs a specific role in the process: serving civil papers, such as cease and desist orders or temporary restraining orders.

Police can do it, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said, but it isn't in their bailiwick. With Alibi, Leslie said his office called to tell the owner they were coming, spoke with her and left the order with a bartender.

"We're not going to become the mask police," Leslie said. "We're really into education."

In Albert Lea, Director of Public Safety J.D. Carlson said Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro violated the executive order recently when it offered its customers sit-down service.

He has handled noncompliance with an explanatory phone call or visit. With the Interchange, he said, it was evident that nothing officers said would change the owner's mind.

The Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against Interchange on Dec. 21 and won a temporary restraining order two days later.

Carlson said he's felt "no pressure" by the state to use criminal enforcement. "In fact, almost just the opposite," he said.

The Attorney General's Office and the Minnesota Department of Health responded to the Interchange violation pretty quickly, Carlson said, which left little time for police to step in, though his officers called and conducted a compliance check.

And police departments can't just barge in and close a business without due process. The quickest way is through the state, he said.

"Quite frankly, nothing we would do would be to the severity, I guess, as what the state has," Carlson said.

Politics of enforcement

Both Long and Carlson noted the political nature of enforcing the executive order, which makes things tougher for local police.

"It behooves the community, potentially, to let the state take the lead" rather than having police appear partial to one side or the other, Carlson said.

Stiles, of the Attorney General's Office, said residents should communicate with local police about enforcement of executive orders.

"If local communities determine that they want high levels of enforcement, they should ask for that," he said.

Norkunas, who recently bought a house three blocks from Alibi, said he and his partner take the virus seriously and want police to intervene.

"I just wish they would do more to protect our community from something like this," he said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781