Gretchen Whitmer shutdown orders prompt small business defiance

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For Amy Heikkinen, serving customers in her coffee shop is as much a fight for survival as an act of civil disobedience against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Ms. Heikkinen’s Cafe Rosetta in Calumet remains open in violation of a Nov. 25 cease-and-desist order from the health department for breaking the governor’s COVID-19 ban on indoor dining. By staying open, she’s racking up fines at a rate of $1,000 per day.

“If we don’t [stay open] we aren’t going to survive,” she said. “We don’t have any other option.”

The struggle of this tiny coffee shop on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mirrors the plight of restaurants and bars from New York to California where a coronavirus surge spurred governors and mayors to shut down businesses again, rippling more pain across the economy.

Since the pandemic began, more than 110,000 or 17% of America’s restaurants have closed permanently or long term, according to the National Restaurant Association.

About 30% of America’s remaining small businesses could go belly up by the end of the year, found a recent study by Biz2Credit.

Congress made small-business help a major plank of emergency COVID relief bills, making more than $700 billion available in federal loans, but that money only went so far.

Cafe Rosetta’s refusal to abide by what it sees as arbitrary and punitive shutdowns follows a path blazed by other small business owners such as Owosso barber Karl Manke.

The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Ms. Whitmer’s shutdown extensions, which she made without legislative approval.

In response, she turned to her appointed lieutenants in state agencies to issue the same orders. That means small business owners like Ms. Heikkinen who run afoul of regulations now find themselves in a Kafkaesque administrative labyrinth outside judicial courts.

“There’s an evil genius to it, but the scope and breadth of what [Ms. Whitmer] did is unbelievable,” said David Kallman, a lawyer who represents Ms. Heikkinen and previously represented Mr. Manke.

“Now you have to exhaust all administrative avenues before you can even get into court. It shows how abusive the state can be, where they can destroy your livelihood before you ever get a day in court.”

Not every small business is affected by the current administrative shutdown. Hair salons, barbers and gyms that led the fight against Ms. Whitmer’s initial shutdown extensions are now exempt.

“And in the meantime, of course, the Walmarts and the Lowe’s, everybody can be packed into there and that’s totally fine,” said Mr. Kallman. “How do you rationalize that?”

Ms. Heikkinen, like other restaurant owners, cannot stay solvent serving only drive-through customers, Mr. Kallman said.

Cafe Rosetta supports 30 part-time workers. The business also supports Ms. Heikkinen’s family with six children ranging from 11 to 21 years old.

Ms. Heikkinen was on welfare in 2013 when she took a chance and opened the coffee shop in Calumet, a town with a population of 781.

“What did I have to lose?” she said.

The number of new coronavirus cases rose in October, and November but the number of daily increases has subsided since Nov. 27. Most of the cases are clustered in the lower part of the state, though there are isolated pockets on the Upper Peninsula, according to state data.

Erik Kiilunen, the founder of the anti-shutdown group All Business is Essential, also is fighting on Ms. Heikkinen’s behalf and helping with legal bills and publicizing her plight.

“They’ve weaponized local health departments against the community,” he said. “This is being done on purpose.”

Mr. Kiilunen is assisting seven small business owners fighting to stay open despite rules that would massively crimp or close their livelihoods.

“These laws have never been used before,” he said of the administrative actions. “Who knows how far they can go or what they can really do?”

For the moment, however, they feel that have no choice.

“There is zero logic or common sense to this,” Ms. Heikkinen said. “It’s all negative and fear-based. But I have to work. I built this.”

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