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Heading outdoors, Prior Lake restaurants take next reopening step

Summer warmth arrived, cottonwood seeds drifted through the air, and restaurant patios, parking lots and sidewalks filled with newly welcome patrons this week.

A revised executive order from Gov. Tim Walz allowed restaurants, hair salons and other face-to-face businesses to open their doors to customers June 1 under several safety standards. Restaurants can have outdoor seating with reservations, for example, and only up to 50 people.

The extra requirements are meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which most easily jumps from person to person in enclosed spaces, several state and federal health officials have said. But even a partial restaurant experience is a happy occasion, several locals said.

“It’s a relief from the reality which we know is out there,” said Allie Robideau, one of dozens seated at picnic tables outside Boathouse Brothers Brewing Company downtown. The city has allowed the brewery and others to use public parking spaces in front for seating.

“Before this we’d always look for places with outdoor seating, and you couldn’t find them,” added Craig Getman, whose family joined Robideau for drinks and cards.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars post, Fong’s Restaurant & Bar and PLate also expanded onto their parking lots or sidewalks with decent crowds Wednesday evening. Charlie’s on Prior and other area restaurants simply reopened their existing patios.

“It’s good enough for now,” Boathouse co-owner Emmett Swartout said of business under the new rules, adding locals’ support over the past couple of months is the only reason the business is still around.

The maximum seating capacity out front is about a third of what the interior could hold, he said, but customers are also still coming by for takeout brews. “People are just excited to have a proper pint.”

Business amid coronavirus restrictions remains a struggle, he added. The business received a federal Payroll Protection Program loan for help, but that largely went to rent for 3,000 empty square feet. Even more loans have gone to keeping on its staff for now.

Some Prior Lake restaurants and other establishments, even the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association this week, have pushed for a fuller reopening with at least spaced-out indoor seating.

“We concur with many of the restaurant and bar owners in our communities who believe we can open safely, and we assert that our veteran organization can likely set the highest standards of compliance with social distancing, sanitation and risk mitigation,” American Legion Department of Minnesota Commander Mark Dvorak wrote in a letter to the governor last month.

Charlie’s owner Jeff Petschl, a vocal member of that push, didn’t return a phone message this week requesting comment on whether he’s still looking to sell the restaurant because of lost business. The original plan was to accept bids until June 1.

Walz and other officials have said they’re gradually dialing back restrictions to prevent a surge in hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. Most people who catch it recover, but the Minnesota Department of Health has counted more than 1,100 deaths tied to the disease and hundreds of people in hospital beds each day.

The department also expects a surge of cases from this week’s protests and marches after the death of George Floyd and recommended that all participants get tested for the virus.

Beyond these overarching concerns, solely outdoor seating also opens up restaurants to the whims of weather, as Tuesday’s evening storms demonstrated. Swartout said Boathouse scrambled to rearrange its tents and tables to stay dry.

But Wednesday night was clear and beautiful, as Angela and Steve Mellema celebrated Angela’s birthday, and a moment away from home, at PLate. They checked the weather forecast days in advance before reserving their slot.

“It feels a little surreal; it’s been a long time,” Angela Mellema said as waiters wearing face masks passed. The two said they knew the virus is still a problem but felt safe. “They’re doing a good job here.”


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Prior Lake Police wouldn't cause deaths like George Floyd's, chief says

Prior Lake Police would never display the heartbreaking, frustrating callousness that led to George Floyd’s death last month under the knee of a white, now-fired Minneapolis officer, Chief Steve Frazer told the City Council Monday.

He noted the city’s officers undergo continuing education on implicit bias, a term for the unconscious prejudice that can warp someone’s actions, and have worn body cameras for two years.

“You can’t be in modern law enforcement and not be talking about these issues,” Frazer said during the council’s meeting.

“We are here to serve,” he added. “We can’t forget that.”

Frazer and other city officials also heard plenty of anxiety about potential unrest or violence in the area, but every lead or warning turned out to be unfounded, Frazer said.

The week’s police reports provided by the department included more than 40 calls about suspicious activity or vehicles and more than 100 extra-patrol logs. But actual crime reports and calls for help were more or less ordinary, Cmdr. Brad Cragoe said after the meeting.

Racism and bias will take root anywhere it can, Mayor Kurt Briggs said, saying his thoughts were with Floyd’s family and praising the communication among area agencies as nonviolent protests and occasional rioting wracked the Twin Cities over the past several days.

“Bigotry and prejudice will not find safe harbor in the city of Prior Lake,” Briggs said.

Hennepin County charged former officer Derek Chauvin with murder and manslaughter charges after Floyd’s May 25 death, which followed a report of a counterfeit $20 bill. Videos of the scene show Chauvin and other officers pressing Floyd against the ground as the man repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and eventually became unresponsive.

Protests, marches and riots almost immediately erupted in Minneapolis and throughout the country, with participants pointing to a long line of black men, women and children killed or mistreated by police after either minor violations or no wrongdoing of any kind.

Gov. Tim Walz and other leaders deployed the National Guard and declared nightly curfews in Minneapolis and St. Paul to control and prevent looting and other violence. The suburbs for the most part have been quiet in that regard.

“I get the pain, I get the frustration,” Frazer said. “There is no reason George Floyd should be dead.”