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A group of restaurant and bar owners have sued the city of Minneapolis and Mayor Jacob Frey over the new rule that their customers must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to eat or drink inside.

The owners of the establishments — Smack Shack, Gay 90's, Sneaky Pete's, Wild Greg's Saloon, Urban Forage, Jimmy John's and Bunkers Music Bar and Grill — filed the lawsuit late Thursday in Hennepin County District Court. They want a judge to stop the city from enforcing the new requirement.

Minneapolis' vaccine mandate went into effect Wednesday, one week after Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter jointly announced that the cities would institute a vaccine-or-test mandate to help curb the continued spread of the virus.

Read the lawsuit filed by restaurant owners against the city

Patrons must provide either proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken under medical supervision within the last 72 hours.

The plaintiffs say those requirements pose significant challenges and contradict guidance and recommendations from the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and medical experts across the country, "all of which adamantly promote and encourage at-home testing." The purpose of the mandate is an attempt to prod the general public to get vaccinated, the plaintiffs say.

Frey, who announced the measure a week after reinstating indoor mask mandates, has argued that the vaccine requirement for indoor dining spaces is a critical step to avoid closures as the city's community transmission rate exceeded 1,300 cases per 100,000 people, putting the city in the "high-risk area category," according to CDC criteria. As of Monday, about 79% of Minneapolis residents were fully vaccinated.

Francis Rondoni, one of the Minneapolis attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said Friday that the mayor did not follow the legislative process and doesn't have the power to issue the order.

Rondoni said the mandate puts an unfair burden on business owners who have already been hit hard financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the establishments, whose job is not to enforce a public health policy, are losing customers to suburban bars and restaurants and are being forced to hire additional help amid staff shortages to try and meet the mandate.

"The mayor especially issued an order by fiat," Rondoni said. "He just doesn't get to issue orders on his own. The problem is, is that when you bypass the legislative process in the city, then the bar owners and restaurant owners don't have an opportunity to be heard and they are damaged here."

A sign about the mask and vaccination mandate is posted at the hostess desk at the Smack Shack on Friday in Minneapolis.
A sign about the mask and vaccination mandate is posted at the hostess desk at the Smack Shack on Friday in Minneapolis.

RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER • Star Tribune

On Friday, Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said the mayor had the authority to issue the vaccine order and that his office will "vigorously defend this prudent approach to ensuring public health and safety."

"We are still in an emergency. The surge in transmission and infection caused by the Delta and Omicron variants renews [the city's] call to action," Rowader said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that Plaintiffs are not interested in doing their part."

Reactions have been mixed among business owners. Some, including those who required proof of vaccine or a recent negative COVID-19 test before the mandate, said the government's order makes it easier for them to enforce health and safety rules. Others said it was a hardship for their already struggling businesses, forcing some to abandon their dining areas or close altogether.

So far, the city said it has received complaints about five businesses not complying with the regulation and that city staff have reached out with information about how to do so. The regulation is enforced mostly based on complaints to the city's 311 system. Violations could result in warning letters, administrative citations, fines or misdemeanor prosecution, but city officials said their focus is to educate and work with businesses.

Frey's order no longer requires employees of all businesses offering indoor dining to be tested or vaccinated. He rescinded that provision after the U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down President Joe Biden's employer mandate for most businesses but left them in place for health care workers.