Supporters stand by jailed bistro owner; other eateries follow COVID-19 rules

Ottawa County

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Signs decorate the front of Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria in Holland, calling for the owner to be free.

Owner Marlena Pavlos-Hackney was jailed Friday after first flouting the state’s most recent dine-in ban and then a suspension of her food license.

As supporters call for the state to reopen the restaurant, owners of other restaurants around the area are calling on their competitors to follow the rules.

“People have the choice to go to Marlena’s and not wear a mask until it catches up with them,” Mike Karas, owner of Salt & Pepper Savory Grill & Pub northeast of Holland, said.

It’s a grim reality Karas knows well:

“Early on, the first week or two of this a year ago, I said, ‘Ah, virus schmirus. This is going to go away. They are overblowing it,'” he recalled. “And then my dad passed away from it.

“I respect Marlena’s opinion — like I said, everyone has the right to that — but we took the opposite direction,” Karas continued. “We immediately masked up.”

Matt Klaus, the owner of Crust 54, which has two locations in Holland, said he went in the same direction, but not because he wanted to. He said he just doesn’t want to get shut down.

“You’re able to take things very seriously but also politely disagree with the politicians have decided for us,” Klaus said.

Supporters backing Pavlos-Hackney argue the orders shutting down the restaurant are an example of government overreach. While Klaus agrees that COVID-19 restrictions should be set by restaurant owners, not Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, that doesn’t mean he’s ignoring the rules.

“I 100% do not agree with her (the governor),” Klaus said, but qualified: “This is the deck we’ve been given. We are operating as we see fit.”

REPUBLICANS DECRY PANDEMIC HANDLING

Four Republican lawmakers and a group of supporters gathered outside Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria Monday morning to voice support for Pavlos-Hackney.

“This is shocking. This is disturbing to me,” state Sen. Roger Victory, R-Georgetown Township, said.

“Why is there a resident of the state of Michigan currently in jail and the justification for her being in jail (is that) she was operating her businesses,” Victory, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued. “…This business is not open but yet we have a resident of the state of Michigan serving time?”

“The America I grew up in was one that allowed you to go out there and work your tail off and make a living and the government wasn’t going to stop you, but they were actually going to encourage you and celebrate that,” state Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, added. “Instead, now in Michigan, one unelected person can tell you you have to shut down. If you don’t, they will throw you in jail.”

He said violating the dine-in ban ordered by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services should not be punishable by jail.

“Marlena did not violate a law that the Legislature passed. Marlena violated an order issued from  unelected bureaucrat. No one should have to go to jail because on unelected bureaucrat makes an order,” Johnson said.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan, said it’s time to take action a broader front.

“We need to stand up for the people. We need to make sure that they have the liberty to live their lives to the best of their ability. That’s why our nation was formed.”

The lawmakers want action but have little leverage. They have already attached language to spending bills that would have given them some oversight ability when it comes to MDHHS emergency orders and the governor, a Democrat, vetoed it.

The lawmakers also questioned why Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was pursuing the case against Marlena Pavlos-Hackney but wouldn’t investigate the Whitmer administration’s handing of the pandemic in nursing homes. They have argued against her policy of allowing COVID-19 patients to be held in the same facilities as those who did not have COVID-19, rather than creating facilities to isolate them.

“Our left-wing Attorney General Dana Nessel refuses to investigate Gov. Whitmer’s tragic nursing home policy but is spending time going after this small business,” Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton said.

Nessel has said she won’t investigate the nursing home matter, last week explaining that she “will not abuse the investigatory powers of this Department to launch a political attack on any state official.”

Asked whether the Legislature would employ a special prosecutor to look into the nursing home matter, the lawmakers fell short of saying they wold but added that all options were on the table.

RESTAURANT OWNER REMAINS BEHIND BARS

Pavlos-Hackney has been in jail since Friday. An Ingham County judge said she would stay there until proof her restaurant is closed is presented at a hearing.

Marlena Pavlos-Hackney sits in the courtroom during her arraignment, Friday March, 19, 2021, at the 30th Judicial Circuit Court in Lansing, Mich. (Nicole Hester/Ann Arbor News via AP)

Pavlos-Hackney’s restaurant on Lincoln Avenue near US-31 stayed open through the winter dine-in ban. As a result, the state suspended her food license in January. She kept serving customers anyway, not following capacity restrictions or requiring masks to be worn.

As she continued to ignore the rules, a judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest March 4. She was arrested Friday.

Pavlos-Hackney has argued she has a right to run her business as she sees fit. However, the attorney general noted that restaurants always have to follow health safety guidelines and that the additional rules because of the pandemic are no different.

“This owner has continued to willfully violate the state’s food laws, public health orders and the order of the court – a dangerous act that may have exposed dozens of diners and employees to the virus following the discovery that one of Marlena’s customers tested positive for the virus within two days of eating there. MDARD is particularly concerned because the potential exposure happened at a restaurant that refuses to comply with basic COVID-19 measures required by the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel – March 19, 2021

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