State suspends Owosso barber's license for violating restrictions

Owosso — A small barber shop in this central Michigan city continued to bustle Wednesday with the owner vowing not to be slowed down by a suspended license.

Barber Karl Manke said he wouldn’t be thwarted by anyone: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Michigan agency that suspended his license.

"That's a police state," he said. "Taking a man's livelihood without a hearing is cruel."

His license and the shop’s license were temporarily suspended Wednesday by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs for violating Whitmer’s executive order that such businesses should be closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manke, 77, who has received kudos and criticism from around the country, was surrounded by supporters in and outside of the shop Wednesday.

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.

Some came for a haircut, waiting two hours because of the heavy turnout.

Others just came to show support, with a few holding American flags along the road in front of the shop. Several motorists honked their horns in support as they drove past.

Manke pledged to keep the doors open, no matter what came his way.

"Just come in and take your license?" he said about the suspension. "That's unbelievable to me."

He said there was no way he could stay in business if he had to close for another month.

Manke said the governor should have worked with barbers before ordering their shops closed. He said barber shops were no more dangerous than supermarkets and other businesses that were allowed to stay open.

But Whitmer, in deciding which businesses to close and which to remain open, tried to distinguish the ones that were essential to the well-being of residents.

A copy of the suspension contends the situation at the Owosso barber required "emergency action" to protect "the public health, safety or welfare." It was sent to Manke and his lawyer.

The suspension was in response to an administrative licensing complaint filed Tuesday by Nessel. It argued Manke willfully violated health and safety rules and was grossly negligent.

A final decision on the licenses will be made at a later date, she said Wednesday.

“Anytime you have a barber or other professional providing services to numerous citizens in close proximity to each other and those citizens are then returning to their various residences, there is a risk of contracting and spreading the virus," she said in a statement. "It is paramount that we take action to protect the public and do our part to help save lives.”    

Separately, Manke faces "$1,000 and 1 year in jail per haircut" under a Department of Health and Human Services order, said Manke's lawyer David Kallman.

Whitmer warned Monday that businesses operating in violation of her stay home order restrictions could face licensing sanctions, a threat Manke's lawyer called "vindictive."

Kallman said Monday the Owosso barber would fight any sanctions to his license. On Wednesday, he said he hadn't yet been hired to represent Manke on the licensing issue.

"If we are hired, we will definitely be having a discussion regarding all of Mr. Manke’s options," Kallman said.

A Shiawassee County Circuit Court judge on Monday denied Nessel's request to issue a temporary restraining order that would close the shop while the state pursued its permanent closure under the public health code. 

Both parties are likely to meet soon for a hearing in front of Shiawassee County Circuit Judge Matthew Stewart on the Department of Health and Human Services order requiring Manke to cease and desist operation. 

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 around the state.

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