Attorney: Shiawassee judge denies shutdown of Owosso barbershop

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Owosso — The most defiant challenge of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic-prompted restrictions on businesses has not come from a titan of industry but from a 77-year-old barber and occasional novelist in a small town between Lansing and Flint.

Still dressed in his hair-cutting smock and with clients waiting inside, Karl Manke choked up Monday when he was cheered by the more than 50 people, mostly unmasked, carrying American Gadsden flags and chanting his name.

As Manke addressed the crowd, he was at times drowned out by the honks of passing vehicles and affirmations from the crowd. A large truck parked nearby and several signs in the crowd bore messages criticizing Whitmer's orders. 

Manke promised to fight the restrictions on his business “until Jesus comes.”

Karl Manke, 77, waves to supporters outside of his barbershop on West Main Street in Owosso Monday. Manke opened his barbershop and has hired Kallman Legal Group as his legal counsel because he was charged with criminal misdemeanor violations for allegedly violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders.

Minutes later, his lawyer emerged from the Owosso barbershop to announce a development short of the Second Coming — a Shiawassee County Circuit judge had denied a request for a temporary restraining order from state Attorney General Dana Nessel that would have resulted in the barbershop's immediate closure.

The order by Shiawassee County Circuit Judge Matthew Stewart came several hours after Nessel requested the judge issue a court order backing a Friday Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shutdown edict under the public health code for violating of Whitmer's stay-home order. 

“I feel the governor is not my mother, never has been,” Manke said. “As a matter of fact, this administration, for the most part, I’ve been in business longer than they’ve been alive.”

Even with the dismissal, it's possible Nessel could appeal the decision, and Manke still faces separate criminal misdemeanor charges for his continued operation.

Owosso police last week cited Manke for a civil infraction and two misdemeanors. A court date is set for June 23, and he faces a more than $1,000 fine.

"We're going to have to deal with those," said David Kallman, Manke’s attorney. "We'll be filing motions to dismiss those cases also."

Nessel's office will work to schedule a hearing on the request for a court-ordered closure as soon as possible, Nessel spokesman Ryan Jarvi said. The Democratic attorney general's request had been filed on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The court wanted to provide Mr. Manke with an opportunity for a hearing on the request for an injunction, despite the clear public health dangers that continued operation of his business creates," Jarvi said. 

Whitmer's threat 'vindictive'

Whitmer maintained at a Monday news conference in Lansing that her executive orders carry the force of law. There are quite a few novel coronavirus cases in Shiawassee County, she said, and the hospital system is concerned.

Through Monday, the county had accumulated 211 cases and 17 deaths since the first COVID-19 cases were reported statewide more than two months ago. Michigan has more than 47,550 cases and nearly 4,600 deaths.

With roughly 15,000 residents, Owosso is the largest city in the mostly rural Shiawassee County. The population density in Shiawassee County is a tenth that of Oakland County, one of the hardest-hit counties in Michigan and roughly 20 miles southeast of Shiawassee County.

"Most businesses in the state have a license that is granted from the state, and they are putting themselves at risk by putting their customers and themselves at risk by opening prematurely," Whitmer said. 

“We need to stay the course and do this in a smart way, and everyone needs to continue doing their part. The devastation from a second wave could dwarf the hardship that we’ve already encountered.” 

Kallman said the threat to Manke's license was "vindictive" and an administrative action the legal team would fight.

Stewart's decision comes as sheriffs' offices in at least six counties have said they won't enforce Whitmer's order, which some argue is legally questionable after the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to extend the governor's state of emergency past May 28. 

Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian Begole on Monday said his department will not enforce Whitmer's executive orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic. Sheriff deputies have the responsibility to uphold the state and federal constitutions, Begole said in a Monday letter. 

"With limited resources, staffing and facilities, our priority focus will be on enforcing duly passed laws for the protection of Shiawassee County citizens," Begole said. "I have decided, within my authority, that our office cannot and will not divert our primary resources and efforts towards enforcement of the (sic) Governor Whitmer's executive orders," he wrote. 

The eyes of the state and nation are on the community, the sheriff said, in an apparent reference to national media attention on Manke had garnered.

"I'm asking you to remain calm, peaceful and considerate of all people as we wait for the courts to rule," Begole said. 

Separately, at least five other sheriffs departments have said they will not make a priority to enforce the executive orders. Those include the counties of Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee, Mason and Livingston.

Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy said he will not enforce the governor's order against a Genoa Township gym that reopened recently. 

Nessel's office said it is aware of the gym's reopening and is "working with state and local partners to ensure compliance" with Whitmer's orders. 

"We are reviewing potential enforcement action that could be imposed through various state and local agencies, and remind officials at all levels that a successful COVID-19 response requires we all do our part and work together toward the common goal of protecting human life," Jarvi said. 

It's unclear whether the Shiawassee County Sheriff's Office is involved to any extent in enforcement of the executive orders against the Owosso barber. So far, Owosso city police and the Michigan State Police have interacted with Manke. 

Shop as COVID-19 'epicenter'?

When asked about the possibility the barbershop could become another "epicenter" for the virus, Manke argued it could just as easily be said about the continued operation of Walmart or Kmart. 

"We all are responsible for ourselves," Manke said. "If people don't feel safe, then I think they should stay home."

Kallman has argued the governor's executive order and Gordon's order for closure "violate various constitutional and statutory requirements and protections."

Attorney David A. Kallman speaks during a press conference outside of Karl Manke’s barbershop in Owosso during a Monday news conference. Manke reopened his barbershop in defiance of the coronavirus stay-at-home order and has hired Kallman Legal Group as his legal counsel because he was charged with criminal misdemeanor violations for allegedly violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders.

"Karl has made it clear," Kallman said. "He has no animus toward anyone — the governor, the attorney general — he just wants to work, and he wants to do it in a safe responsible way."

He argued Whitmer's executive orders do not have the force of law because they were not extended by the Legislature, a position that is being litigated in at least two state and federal court cases. Manke is prepared to take his case to the Supreme Court, if necessary, Kallman said.

"If you can walk down the aisles at Walmart, it would seem to me you can walk down the aisles of a church, you can walk down the aisles in Karl's barbershop and practice the same physical distancing, hand-washing, all of the things you've been hearing on and on," Kallman said.

Manke reopened May 4 and continued cutting hair through the weekend, but he took Sunday off for Mother's Day. His continued violation of the stay-home order attracted national media attention and lines of people from as far as Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson and Saginaw.

Manke said he reopened because he needed money and had yet to receive unemployment or federal stimulus payments. He clarified Monday that he had received a payment from the unemployment agency recently, but it isn't enough.

Manke is the author of several Michigan-based novels, including ones that take place on Harsens Island and the Great Lakes. Others focus on Vietnam, World War II and a railcar murder mystery.

Karl Manke, 77, talks during a news conference outside of his barbershop at 421 West Main in Owosso, Monday afternoon, Manke opened his barbershop and has hired Kallman Legal Group as his legal counsel because he was charged with criminal misdemeanor violations for allegedly violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders.

He said he worked throughout the week while wearing a mask, washing his wands between cuts and using an ultraviolet sanitizer on his tools.

Nessel's office said Saturday that Manke's actions were not "a display of harmless civil disobedience" and, instead, were "counterproductive" to the efforts of other businesses and communities. 

When Eric Krupp thinks of his native Owosso, one of the first mainstays that comes to mind is Manke, his childhood barber with the white building with blue awnings and a striped pole out front.

So when the Mount Pleasant man heard about Manke’s determination to keep his shop open, Krupp and his 14-year-old son, Gentry, drove an hour for a fresh cut.

“I know Karl isn’t doing this for any kind of a political reason, and I know some others might be coming in for that,” Krupp said Monday. “But for Karl, it's just the principle. This is what he does and he shouldn’t be stopped.”

Prior to reopening May 4, the last mane Manke cut was on March 21. During the six weeks he was closed, Manke said he watched for updates on the stay-home order and when things would get back to normal.

But Manke said he felt like a chess piece being moved around a political board as he watched national TV appearances in which Whitmer sparred with President Donald Trump's opinions. The final shoe dropped when the governor proposed extending the emergency past April 30 and the Legislature refused to extend it.

“That’s when I fell to my knees,” Manke said. “I’ve never seen anything like this where you have such oppression.”

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.