ST. PAUL — A number of bars, restaurants and other public-facing businesses in Minnesota forged ahead with plans to reopen Wednesday, Dec. 16, in protest of state pandemic restrictions, even as Gov. Tim Walz moved to roll some of those restrictions back.

Dozens of establishments across the state reportedly opened for indoor dining and drinking despite a ban on those acts that took effect in November amid an increase in COVID-19 infections. Following months of operating at reduced capacity, they say, the ban pushed their finances to the brink.

Several more eateries reopened in East Grand Forks alone, where the Boardwalk Bar and Grill made headlines for reopening in protest a week earlier. Joe's Diner was among those to follow suit Wednesday.

"If I didn’t open now, I would have lost everything," Joe's Diner owner Joe Bushaw told Forum News Service.

Wednesday's protest actions unfolded as Walz issued a new executive order that eases some restrictions on the involved businesses and also on social gatherings. The new order order includes:

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  • Permission for gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity with an occupancy cutoff of 100 people. Health clubs were previously ordered to close to the public in late November.
  • A go-ahead for outdoor entertainment venues with the same capacity limits as gyms.

  • The OK for indoor social gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 15.
  • The return of outdoor dining at bars and restaurants, which must adhere to a 50% capacity limit and a maximum occupancy limit of 100 people. The November executive order only allowed restaurants to open for take-out and delivery.

Indoor dining will still be prohibited, however, under the executive order announced Wednesday, which takes effect Friday, Dec. 18.

Before Walz even issued the order, an informal group of bars, restaurants and gyms calling itself the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition claimed that 160 such establishments had pledged to reopen Wednesday. Not all of them went public with their intentions, though many did add their names to a list published to the group's Facebook page.

Twin Cities area engineer Darius Teichroew helped to organize the group because of his objection to the restrictions, which he previously told Forum News Service were not supported by state COVID-19 data.

Here is the list, provided by ReOpen Minnesota Coalition:

Some of the businesses whose names appeared on the list, however, did not follow through on the pledge, according to Forum News Service reports. Others, meanwhile, were businesses that were not restricted but added their names to the list in solidarity.

On Wednesday evening, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office issued a statement refuting some of the group's claims. Some 40% of the businesses alleged to be protesting Wednesday were already authorized to open, the statement said.

"Of the remaining number, approximately 60 are bars and restaurants. Of those, approximately 20 have represented to the Attorney General’s office that they are in fact complying with the executive order and are not open for on-premises service," the statement said. "The Attorney General’s office is still ascertaining the intentions of or investigating the remainder. In only a small handful of instances thus far has the Attorney General’s office determined that an establishment is openly or defiantly violating Executive Order 20-99."

The AG's office said it will be taking enforcement actions against those businesses found not to be in compliance.

"I don’t enjoy using the enforcement tools I have, but I will use them to hold violators accountable and keep Minnesotans safe," Attorney General Keith Ellison is quoted as saying in the statement.

When asked for a response, Teichroew said more establishments are reopening than have have publicly let on. That's partially for fear of action from Ellison's office, which he said contacted several businesses Wednesday.

"It is exactly because of the harassment they are facing that the majority of our members have chosen to remain anonymous and open just within their community," Teichroew said.

Whether the AG's words will keep additional businesses from reopening remains to be seen. ReOpen Minnesota had previously asked business in the Twin Cities metro area to refrain from reopening until Friday, Dec. 18.

Earlier in the day, in Clarkfield, Minn., Natasha Lynne said she had initially been waiting to reopen her restaurant until Friday as well. She bought the restaurant, Elsie’s Café, just two days before the November executive order was issued, having managed it for more than a year by that point.

Since then, the mother of three has had days where she rings up only $100 in sales.

"So I have to do something, and if we don’t stand up, we’re going to be shut down again for three months and then I’m going to be homeless with my children," Lynne said.

Some of the business owners interviewed Wednesday said they take issue with department stores and malls being allowed to operate mostly unhindered by the pandemic restrictions applied to small, often locally owned businesses. Others said they are aware of the health and legal risks but that their livelihoods are at stake.

State lawmakers have sought to make businesses affected by the pandemic whole and this week did pass a $216 million relief package meant to funnel direct aid payments their way. But establishments that violate the executive orders could be out an additional $25,000 each if they are fined for doing so.

While only a fraction of COVID-19 exposures in the state have been directly linked to bars and restaurants, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, they likely resulted in new infections in other settings.

Forum News Service reporters Adam Kurtz in Grand Forks and Mark Wasson in Willmar contributed to this story. Contact Matthew Guerry at mguerry@forumcomm.com or 651-321-4314