Lakefield City Council passes resolution that sends message of support to businesses

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Gov. Tim Walz's "stay at home" order covers all 87 counties in Minnesota with the same broad brush.

It's aimed at keeping COVID-19 from spreading, whether in urban Hennepin County or rural Jackson County in southern Minnesota. But in the small town of Lakefield, with a population of 1,700, leaders took a pivotal vote on Monday and a very public stand to give local businesses the option to reopen.

Most of the businesses are lined up along Main Street: there's a cafe, a clothing store and a bowling alley. But now downtown is all but deserted. The doors to stores are locked, the lights are off, no one could be seen working inside and no one was outside waiting to get in. 

Lakefield Mayor Brian Rossow said he's not aware of any businesses that have opened since the resolution was passed 3-2 at City Hall during a tense meeting.

The resolution defied Gov. Walz's executive order on social restrictions and declared Lakefield a "constitutional and business-friendly community." It went onto state the city council won't direct any resources to enforce the government order and sent a conflicting message to any business that opts to open up in violation of the order.

"We don't want to tell anybody to break the law — we're not encouraging that. We're saying if you choose to open, the city won't stand in the way, but you may see resistance from the state or county," Rossow said.

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Sheriff Shawn Haken of Jackson County issued a statement in response to the resolution:

"(I) certainly sympathize with our small businesses here in rural MN. Unfortunately, the resolution that was passed has been misinterpreted and spun to make it seem like all businesses are opening irregardless of the Executive Order and any penalties or fines that could follow. None of the businesses that are frustrated plan to open in defiance of the Order."

That includes the locally-owned gym Body Balance Fitness, which Janele and Troy Untiedt co-own.

"I will open my doors before I am forced to lose everything. I'm not going to go without a fight," Janele Untiedt said.

The fitness center has been a longtime fixture on Highway 86 and is now struggling to survive with no income since mid-March and mounting debts to pay.

"Our plan is to wait to lift the lockdown," Janele Untiedt said. "This is our heart and soul. I don't know how long we'll be able to hang on."

The resolution was a show of community support for business owners like the Untiedts and a signal to Walz.

"There are a lot of communities in greater Minnesota that are frustrated at being boxed in a situation they can't control. It's unfair," Rossow said.

The League of Minnesota Cities said similar resolutions have already passed or are being considered in dozens of other places statewide.

"I understand the governor's One Minnesota approach. The end goal might be the same, but we can't approach the same way in Lakefield; it's not the same as in Minneapolis," said Rossow.

But in the days since the Lakefield resolution passed, business owners are holding off.

"We've had people contact us but unfortunately we can't let anybody in, we don't want to run the risk," added Troy Untiedt.

According to state records, at least 60 people or businesses have been cited for violating the "stay at home" order. Walz has publicly recognized there are folks who will willfully violate it. The governor emphasized voluntary social compliance and said the point is to educate people, not arrest them.

The penalty for violating the executive order is a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.