News Story

She Fled Communism For Freedom, Now Faces Jail For Not Closing Restaurant

Polish immigrant takes a stand

A Holland, Michigan, restaurateur who escaped communist rule in Poland as a teenager because she wanted to be a free person faces jail in Michigan for declining to enforce COVID rules on business operations.

Marlena Hackney has lived under a threat of imprisonment since March 4, when Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development petitioned a court to enforce a shutdown order targeting Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria. The reason: noncompliance with emergency COVID rules on restaurant capacity, mask-wearing and physical distancing.

In an interview with Michigan Capitol Confidential, Hackney said in March 2020 she closed the business she has owned for nearly two decades, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a COVID emergency and imposed a first round of business lockdowns.

The small-business owner reopened when some of the restrictions were lifted last summer. But when state agencies reimposed a ban on indoor dining last fall — acting after the state Supreme Court trimmed back Whitmer’s open-ended emergency powers — she declined to comply.

Hackney said she tells customers, “Your health is your responsibility.”

She described her responsibility as serving the restaurant’s patrons and employees, while pursuing the dream of opportunity and economic independence that motivated her to leave communist Poland nearly 40 years ago.

“I work hard. You work hard and you can accomplish many things. My employees depend on me,” she said.

“I’m the one who has to pay the bills. The city is not giving me a break on my property taxes,” she said.

Hackney said she regarded the authorities who revoked her license to serve food and sought court orders to shut her down as “unlawful.”

“I run a constitutional business,” she said.

Neither the governor nor public health officials have a right to impair her operations without a due process demonstration that what she is doing is dangerous, Hackney said. Ingham County Circuit Judge Wanda Stokes, in a virtual hearing conducted March 4, disagreed.

Chastising Hackney for appearing without a state-licensed attorney to represent her, Stokes said: “This is willful. This virus is killing people (and) we still have individuals who are intentionally not following the law.”

Stokes issued an injunction ordering the Bistro closed until it came into compliance, imposed a $7,500 fine and issued a bench warrant for Hackney’s arrest. Stokes was appointed to the bench in 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

As of March 16, the bench warrant had not been executed. Marlena’s Bistro remains open and has been attracting near-capacity crowds.

Hackney said she won’t back down.

“I am willing to fight. I will not be intimidated. Nothing will change. I am going to fight for my freedom.”

Michigan State Police have asked Hackney to voluntarily surrender herself by Thursday, March 18, according to spokeswoman Shanon Banner. And if she refuses? “We don’t speculate or publicly discuss next steps,” Banner said.

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.