News Story

Restaurant Owner Pushed To The Edge By Lockdowns

‘Every attempt we made at compliance was not enough’

An Ingham County judge has issued a temporary restraining order against a Calumet restaurant after the owner refused to close during the state-ordered lockdown.

The order was issued by Judge Wanda Stokes, according to a state of Michigan Dec. 31 press release. It applies to Amy Heikkinen, the owner of the Café Rosetta in Calumet, located in the Upper Peninsula.

The state of Michigan press release stated, "Judge Stokes's order comes after Café Rosetta disregarded an epidemic order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which included protections against the spread of COVID-19 such as a temporary prohibition on gatherings for indoor dining in the state, and a cease-and-desist order and summary suspension order issued by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). Following an administrative hearing on MDARD's summary suspension order earlier this month, an impartial Administrative Law Judge determined that the continued operation of Café Rosetta posed an imminent threat to the public health, safety, and welfare."

"We're pleased that Judge Stokes has ruled in the state's favor, not only for the health of our residents, but also for the sake of the industry as a whole," said MDARD Director Gary McDowell. "Epidemic orders issued by the state are meant to be temporary, but they only work if everybody follows the same rules. There are thousands of Michigan restaurants, bars, and businesses trying to do right by their communities and fellow business owners, but their sacrifices must not be undermined because others ignore the law and make up their own rulebook during a pandemic."

In November, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all inside dining to be closed. Heikkinen estimates that Café Rosetta lost about 43% of its revenue for 2020 during the first lockdown in the spring and says it probably won’t survive another shutdown.

“When the Nov. 15 order came out most recently, I looked at our finances and saw that it wouldn’t be possible for us to comply with the newest executive order to shut down indoor dining,” she told Michigan Capitol Confidential. Heikkinen decided instead to hire a lawyer and stay open.

Heikkinen says she has done her best to comply with the pandemic-related restrictions and mandates. But she suffers from hyperthyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis, conditions that make her unable to wear a face mask. The owner said she has documents to that effect, signed by a doctor.

But the papers apparently did not satisfy officials in the Western Upper Peninsula Department of Health. She said they have been hard to deal with, noting official reports contained statements such as “Amy was sitting at a desk behind the counter unmasked.”

The restaurant owner objected, saying that the goal of state restrictions is not to drive individuals who cannot wear a face mask out of the hospitality industry.

“Saying you can’t work anywhere in food service if you don’t wear a mask is ridiculous,” she says. “I’m not even in the dining area (when I’m not wearing a mask), but that’s not enough. Every attempt we made at compliance was not enough.”

“What they were asking me to do with the masking was that they said I wasn’t able to work in food service — but that’s my whole business,” Heikkinen said.

Houghton County was touched lightly by the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. From January through Sept. 28, it had one confirmed death linked to COVID-19. But over the next three months, there were 24 COVID-related deaths, as of Dec. 29. There are 35,684 people who live in Houghton County, as of 2019.

Heikkinen said she was frequently visited by the health department and has been repeatedly cited for noncompliance with pandemic emergency orders.

The single mother of six said the state actions only made her more motivated.

“It just gives me more guts to fight it because it’s so absolutely asinine,” she said.

Heikkinen said a crowdfunding effort has already raised more than $50,000 to help with her legal fees.

“People are driving from all over the state to come and see us and tell us ‘thank you for doing this and standing up,’” she said. “I feel like the more restaurants that stand up — people want to take their power back.”

Heikkinen reports the only other restaurants open in town are another coffee shop and a pizza place, which offer takeout only. She says she is worried about the elderly members of her community who visit Café Rosetta daily.

“They don't have anywhere else to go, and we care about them,” she said.

The restaurant owner said she’s also fighting for the livelihood of her 30 employees.

“These people don’t want to get laid off,” she said. “Did you know that if you’re a server in Michigan, unemployment is only $100 a week?”

“If you actually talk to people in the street who live paycheck to paycheck, this knocks them out,” Heikkinen continued. “We’re still trying to make up for the loss in sales that started last spring. It’s really about survival, which is totally underrated at this point.”

She is due in court on Jan. 14 to answer the complaints by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Maybe I should become a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen,” Heikkinen quipped, suggesting this would make her exempt from lockdowns.

Heikkinen's story has captured the attention of two Republican legislators.

State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, and Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, released a statement that said Whitmer has created a no-win scenario for Michigan businesses.

"The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Director Robert Gordon, and their department bureaucrats in their crackdown against hardworking Upper Peninsula residents and property owners," the press release stated. "The state has created a no-win situation for our U.P. businesses. Those who refuse to close just to survive are having their duly paid licenses revoked and property rights seized or destroyed by bureaucrats in Lansing. While the Legislature took action to provide businesses with relief in the recent budget supplemental, the governor also showed her lack of empathy for businesses across the state and slashed the funding today by line-item veto."

The press release continued: “The regular, democratic process for laws must be restored, allowing for debates over laws and rules and for the will of the people to prevail. We must also repeal these old laws that allow any administration so much unchecked power. In this fight against COVID-19, and for the soul of our state and nation, restaurants are not the problem — why else won’t the governor share her science for how Café Rosetta is a problem, but big box stores and casinos are not?"

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.