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Michigan Barbecue Restaurant Is Suing Gov. Whitmer Over COVID Restrictions

The Gaylord restaurateur’s lawsuit alleges that Whitmer lacked the legal authority to impose restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

A view of a closed restaurant dining room, featuring all of the chairs turned over on the tables.
Iron Pig Smokehouse is suing the governor and the state health department for loss of income and a refund of fines he received for defying COVID mandates.
David Tonelson/Shutterstock

The owner of Iron Pig Smokehouse in Northern Michigan is suing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for fines and loss of business he received after defying state orders during last fall’s indoor dining closures.

The Gaylord restaurateur’s lawsuit, filed in Otsego County District Court, seeks damages in excess of $25,000 and alleges that Whitmer lacked the legal authority to impose restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Owner Ian Murphy’s suit says the governor and the health department closed his barbecue business so “that it was unable to operate, unable to earn an income, and unable to function in any way.” The governor has three weeks to respond. The governor’s office has not immediately responded to a request for comment.

In November, the state health department closed indoor dining and restricted capacity and hours for bars and restaurants as coronavirus caseloads surged. Murphy has been openly defying closing orders and restrictions since then, resulting in numerous fines and the temporary suspension of his food and liquor licenses.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission in December suspended the restaurant’s liquor license and tacked on a fine for violation of the ban on indoor dining and for not enforcing mask-wearing requirements. Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development took away the business’s food license and lobbed a fine as well.

Murphy’s lawsuit references a Michigan Supreme Court ruling last year that said a 1945 law giving the governor the power to issue a closure order for bars and restaurants was unconstitutional. Since that ruling, Whitmer’s administration has used precedents established during the 1918 flu pandemic, to reissue orders through the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than directly from the governor’s office.

The barbecue joint has been encouraging customers to show up for indoor dining and #riskitforthebrisket, selling stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag and slogans such as “BBQ so good it’s illegal” to champion its cause.

Michigan public health officials on Saturday, May 8, reported 1,825 new confirmed coronavirus cases, the lowest single-day number since March. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 862,633 confirmed cases in the state, and 18,206 COVID-19 deaths.

Since the start of the pandemic, a handful of Michigan restaurants have defied state orders surrounding indoor dining service, including Andiamo in Warren.

The governor and the state health department have faced a slew of legal challenges related to the pandemic. In August 2020, the Michigan Farm Bureau filed a lawsuit, alleging mandatory COVID-19 testing for farmers infringed on their civil rights. In the fall, the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association sued Robert Gordon, then the director of MDHHS. Jeremy Sasson of Townhouse and Prime + Proper, and Suburban Inns, a Hudsonville company, joined that case. A federal judge sided with the state health department.

Iron Pig Complaint [Official]
What Are Michigan’s Current COVID-19 Rules for Restaurants and Bars? [ED]
Michigan Restaurants and Bars Received Fines and License Suspensions Due to COVID-19 Restrictions [ED]
Andiamo in Warren Is Among the Latest Restaurants to Face License Suspensions for Violating COVID-19 Orders [ED]
Michigan Issues More License Suspensions and Fines to Restaurants Ignoring State Orders [ED]
Michigan Barbecue Restaurant Offering Indoor Service Receives Liquor License Suspension [ED]
Some Michigan Restaurants Call to Defy Dine-In Closure as State Issues Fines, License Suspensions [ED]

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