Local business appears targeted

HOUGHTON — A Shelden Avenue shop faced challenges two months after the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan were reported on March 10, and triggered subsequent temporary closures of businesses and institutions. On March 13, K-12 schools were ordered closed, followed by bans on gatherings of more than 250 people, and on March 16, restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues were ordered closed, later that month, gatherings were further limited to 50, stay-at-home orders were issued, and heavy restrictions, including closure in many instances, were placed on small businesses.

Northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula were given the green light to “reopen” on May 22. Some businesses across the state, however, opened before the green light went into effect.

Otter River Outfitters clothing store, on Shelden Avenue, had decided to re-open its doors on May 16 , while at the same time “making safety the Number 1 priority.” The Daily Mining Gazette published a May 18 article on the store’s reopening, focusing on what Kowalczyk was doing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep the store safe for shoppers. The goal of the article was to offer safety protocols to other businesses that would soon reopen.

Among protocols adopted by the store owners, Stacy and Michael KowalczyK, Otter River was opened with limited hours, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Store policies included social distancing among shoppers, masks were mandatory, and any clothing items tried were to be left in the changing rooms, where they remained removed from the sale area until they were disinfected before returning them to the display racks. Additionally, after every use, the changing rooms are disinfected and cleaned, and after every customer purchase, the sales counters are sanitized to assure maximum protection against Coronavirus

Acting under orders from Houghton County Prosecutor, Brittany Bulleit, Houghton police on May 19, issued an order to the Kowalczyk’s to shut the retail business’ doors, after the May 18 Gazette article stated the outlet recently re-opened. The order came three days before U.P. businesses were permitted to re-open according to the Michigan governor’s executive order.

“Despite us being shut down,” Kowalczyk told the Gazette, “no one else will be shut down, it was a direct response to your article on us about opening up.”

In an email, Kowalczyk said he was told by the police that the order was issued by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

Houghton Police Chief John Donnelly confirmed that his office received the order, but said it came from the county prosecutor. He also confirmed that it was the result of a May 18 article in the Daily Mining Gazette.

“There was a story publicized about the Otter place opening before the executive order was up,” Donnelly said. “We were directed by Brittany Bulleit (Houghton County prosecuting attorney) to go and say: ‘you are not to open officially until the executive order is up.”

Donnelly added that had Kowalczyk done it “under the radar,” the police department might not have said anything. Whether Bulleit acted on the DMG article, or received orders from the governor of the attorney general, Donnelly said he did not know.

Houghton City Police returned to Otter River Outfitters again the next morning, May 21. Houghton Police Lieutenant Nick Roberts said the reason for the second visit was to compile a report for the Houghton County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, one day before U.P. businesses could open.

While other businesses along Shelden Avenue were open for business, the police officer sent to Otter River said that he was not instructed to make arrests or issue citations.

“He did make it known that he was not here to give me a ticket, he was not here to arrest me,” said Mike Kowalczyk. “He was here to write up a report, and he would have to give it to the prosecutor, and then we’ll go from there.”

The report, said Kowalczyk, was to report to the prosecutor that Otter River Outfitters had been ordered to shut down on the 19th, violated the order by opening on the 20th, and re-opening on the 21st, “even though the U.P. is allowed to open up at 12:01 a.m. on Friday.”

Kowalczyk said he feels that with the number of other businesses in the area open for business, accepting curbside, as well as walk-in clients, customers that Otter River Outfitters to be singled out because of a news article is discriminatory and intimidation.

Kowalczyk may be correct. Several other businesses in Houghton County have opened within the week, and according to Roberts, they have not been asked or instructed to order them to shut down. In fact, he said the number of complaints regarding businesses re-opening has been very low, initially thinking the Health Department had requested the prosecutor’s office to act.

“I thought it was the Health Department, but it was actually the prosecutor,” said Roberts. “This all came from the article in the Gazette; it was very precise and well-written on how they were going to do that (safeguards to protect the public), so she asked us to go and investigate it.”

In this instance, the police are “between a rock and a hard spot.” Roberts said the Houghton Police Department appreciates what the community has been going through.

No legal action was taken against Otter River Outfitters.

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