Coffee shop owner defies MDHHS order, continues indoor dining

Café Rosetta’s owner, Amy Heikkinen, said she’s looked at her books, and compliance is simply non-negotiable.
Cafe Rosetta refuses to comply with MDHHS orders
Published: Dec. 18, 2020 at 5:59 PM EST
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CALUMET, Mich. (WLUC) - A Calumet coffee shop has caused quite the debate the past month for its refusal to comply with state orders to close indoor dining.

Café Rosetta’s owner, Amy Heikkinen, said she’s looked at her books, and compliance is simply non-negotiable at this point.

Despite the order issued by MDHHS, which went into effect on November 18, she’s continued to allow indoor service, even without face masks.

Heikkinen has spent the last seven years building her business—and her life— from rock bottom.

“I put my blood, sweat, and tears into the business,” she said.

In 2013, the single mother of six was recently divorce, living off welfare, and dealing with painful rheumatoid arthritis—until she was given an opportunity: baking for the café that she now co-owns with her brother.

“My kids worked, helped out in the kitchen, things like that,” said Heikkinen.

In 2017, Heikkinen and her three employees moved just a few doors down the block to a much bigger space on the corner of 5th Street.

Now with 30 employees, Heikkinen said business was booming.

“We had lines out the door waiting when we opened. It was very positive,” she said. “We beat our sales records right away.”

Then, the pandemic happened.

Heikkinen said she closed indoor dining during the very first Executive Order in March, which ended up lasting through the beginning of June.

In that time, she lost 30% of her sales revenue.

“We had taken a leap just to move into this location. You know, there’s more space, but there’s also more overhead—new equipment, costs—that we had to take care of,” Heikkinen explained.

When Governor Whitmer and MDHHS announced another indoor dining ban effective November 18, Heikkinen said enough was enough and refused to comply.

“There’s no pausing at this point ten months into it,” she said. “If we did close at that point, or only offer take-out, our business would be destroyed.”

Her situation isn’t unique.

According to a study published last week by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 33% of Michigan restaurant owners say it’s unlikely they’ll still be in business in six months.

That same study shows 89% of restaurant owners expect sales to decrease in the next three months, 90% say their profit margin is lower than it was pre-pandemic, and 48% say they’re considering fully closing temporarily until the pandemic ends.

In Houghton County, 1,532 people have tested positive and 23 people have died from the virus since March, and the test positivity rate is six-tenths of a percentage point higher than the current U.P. average (6.6% Houghton County, 6.0% U.P.).

Heikkinen said contact tracing hasn’t linked her coffee shop to any coronavirus cases in the community.

The Western U.P. Health Department did not respond to our interview requests for this story, but said in a statement it’s bound to uphold state epidemic orders, and the department “would like to thank and applaud our local businesses that are doing the right thing and voluntarily complying with the MDHHS Epidemic Orders to actively protect their customers and fellow citizens.”

Heikkinen has received at least $4,000 in fines, according to the WUPHD.

But so far, she hasn’t had to pay any of that because she filed an appeal.

MDHHS allows for 30 days to pay civil fines. After that, it becomes a misdemeanor.

Heikkinen had a court hearing with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development last week to decide the café's fate—to pay the fine or drop it—but she hasn’t heard back on the ruling.

“This really is about the middle class. People still have to work and pay their bills. They want to go out, they want to visit. That’s what bonds the community together,” Heikkinen said. “And that’s just not about me surviving to support my family, it’s about humanity.”

She also can’t wear a mask due to her health issues, as do many of her employees, and she said she’s not going to force others to wear a mask in her café anymore either.

She said it’s up the individual to make their own decisions about their health.

“It’s not my job or my position to do the government’s dirty work,” she said. “I really felt strongly about that. That’s just not right.”

For all the online backlash she’s received for her decision, she’s found a lot of support too, even from unlikely places—like from acquaintances like Erik Kiilunen, founder of All Business is Essential.

Kiilunen launched a billboard campaign throughout the state in the spring time and held a Fourth of July fireworks celebration in Lake Linden.

He said Heikkinen’s story is worth being vocal about.

“These small town restaurants, this is where everything happens—I don’t care what town you’re in, even New York—it’s the local pub, it’s the local restaurant, the locals get together, they talk about the cares and concerns of the day and that’s where communication happens,” he said. “And to me, it’s very intentional what’s going on in this country. They don’t want anybody talking about it.”

Kiilunen said he feels the MDHHS orders are inconsistent, confusing, unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable.

Governor Whitmer and MDHHS have cited Act 368 of 1978 as grounds for the orders and enforcing them, which states in part, “to… add to the laws relating to public health,” “to prescribe the powers and duties of governmental entities and officials,” and allowing “the department representative or local health officer [to] issue a warning notice to the individual requiring the individual to cooperate with the department or local health department in efforts to prevent or control transmission of serious communicable diseases or infections.”

Currently, Senate Bill 1253, supported by State Senator Ed McBroom, has passed the senate, which would limit MDHHS powers and require approval from the legislature to extend MDHHS’s emergency powers beyond 28 days.

Kiilunen said while he knows some business owners fear they couldn’t afford the financial repercussions issued by the state, he believes more businesses need to take a stand and reopen now.

“To any business that can’t take that chance, I would just encourage you to go look at your books and tell me how long you can stay closed,” he said. “Open up. Believe that we’ve got your back, the community has your back.”

Heikkinen said she has no plans of shutting down anytime soon.

“These people need to live just like I do. I say just stand up and open and take it from there.”

Heikkinen has now hired attorney David Kallman, who represented Owosso barber Karl Manke—who made headlines for refusing to comply with Governor Whitmer’s executive order to close hair salons.

A GiveSendGo account has been set up for Heikkinen to pay for those legal costs.

Heikkinen has not yet received a court date for fighting her daily fines.

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