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When Earning a Living Becomes Illegal

TAC spoke with two business owners who are facing criminal charges for keeping their establishments open during COVID.

In 2020, Texas hair stylist Shelly Luther made national headlines for refusing to shut down her salon and spending time in jail due to COVID restrictions. A year later, across the country business owners continue to face jail threats for violating COVID mandates.

The American Conservative spoke with two such business owners: Melissa “Lisa” Hanson, who owns the Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro in Minnesota, and Mike Carnevale, who previously owned Fitness 1440, a gym in Broward County, Florida.

Carnevale said he is facing up to six months in jail for refusing to uphold the mask mandate for those exercising in his gym. He was already fined, and his business was seized.

Though Florida’s Governor Ron Desantis has been known as one of the least restrictive state executives in the nation, local officials in parts of Florida have maintained COVID restrictions on the county level, particularly in Broward County.

“I sued Broward County,” Carnevale told TAC, “and one day later, I started getting arrested. So, I think it’s important to note that this was direct retaliation to a lawsuit I filed.” Carnevale has now been arrested three times for failing to enforce the Broward County mask mandate at his gym. “I was just suing because it violated the privacy clause,” Carnevale said. “If you know anything about the science, wearing a mask while working out is dangerous.”

But Broward County officials were not buying his reasons. In March 2021, he and his wife were arrested, and he told TAC the charges he faces carry up to six months in jail.

“Now they’re looking to take it a step further. They want to put us in jail and we’re not backing down to this,” Carnevale told the local CBS affiliate after his arrest. “We have an attorney that’s going to fight this until the very end. I’ll be fighting this until the very end. I won’t be backing down, that’s where we stand.”

Chronicling his plight on a personal website, Carnevale said his business was seized in October, when a judge signed off on a writ of possession. He said he has a court date coming up on May 18. In February, Broward County offered a plea deal with a 10-day sentence, which Carnevale rejected. He said the case is likely to go to trial and he faces up to 180 days for violating the mask mandate.

Hanson, meanwhile, alleges she also was targeted by law enforcement, with a warrant issued for her arrest shortly after she filed a lawsuit in April 2021. Hanson said she was indicted on six criminal counts in 2020, after Hanson kept her business open, despite a Walz mandate. Hanson said shutting down immediately was not possible: “We had employees we had to consider; we had customers we had to consider. We had vendors we had to consider, all our food orders.”

Hanson said she shut her business down as soon as she completed the orders which had already been placed. She said this was not good enough for local officials, and that an extra three charges were added because she did not close down immediately after the charges were filed; she now faces nine criminal charges. “These were for, I think, public nuisance,” Hanson said of the added charges.

“The really important [thing] that everybody…‘keeps getting hung up on’ is that there is a warrant for my arrest on missing a bail that I was not summoned to. What we stress here is those are absolutely invalid warrants; they are unlawful,” Hanson said. “I did not attend that court hearing because I did not receive the summons,” she added, saying that she had attended all previous hearings.

Hanson said she has no criminal record. The charges against her can carry up to 90 days in jail per charge, and right now, she is facing up to six months in jail for failing to make this court appearance, which occurred shortly after she filed her lawsuit.

“We actually have over 30 lawsuits and counterclaims against over 20 individuals in the State of Minnesota, local and state level,” she said. Governor Tim Walz is one of the defendants; the Minnesota governor’s office did not respond to a message for comment. Hanson said her civil lawsuit is based on the argument that Walz’s order is unlawful because he does not have the power to make laws. She said her decision to remain open was fueled by the desire to stand up against an unlawful order.

Hanson said that when Walz, like many governors, initially shut down all businesses in the spring of 2020, she went along, even though she did not agree. Minnesota businesses opened up again in the summer, but then Walz issued more shutdown orders in November, including a ban on all indoor dining.

“I happen to be a 95 percent [by revenue] indoor dining restaurant,” Hanson said.  “We cannot survive this a second time. We need to open fully, or we close permanently… We are Americans; we know that this is not right. This is against our rights as Americans.”

The city attorney of Albert Lea, which took out the charges, did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.