Judge refuses state request to shut Owosso barbershop

A Michigan judge denied the state of Michigan's request to shut down an Owosso barbershop whose owner has openly defied the governor's stay-home orders and continued to cut hair.

During a hearing Thursday, Shiawassee County Circuit Judge Matthew Stewart refused to issue a preliminary injunction against Karl Manke.

An Owosso police officer tickets barber Karl Manke on May 6 for violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders closing most Michigan businesses.

Stewart said while his decision was a "close call," he could not grant the state's request because officials failed to demonstrate that Manke was posing an imminent public health and safety threat by serving customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stewart said the threat the state alleges that Manke poses to public health and safety "must be actual and not theoretical."

The judge also asked state assistant attorney general Joseph Potchen why Manke was not arrested if he was a public health or safety risk.

"We're not looking to arrest him or throw him in jail ... just close his business until it is safe," said Potchen.

Manke, 77, has become a local and national symbol of resistance in Michigan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders closing most businesses and other public places to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 5,300 people in the state.

Manke has  been ticketed but not arrested for operating despite the state restrictions.

Potchen told Stewart that Manke, who has operated his barbershop for 60 years, poses a public health and safety.

"This is not a clean business," said Potchen. "There is close physical contact. You see the pictures of clients not wearing masks or the waiting room where safe distancing is not being practiced."

The state attorney said COVID-19 is a "very real," contagious and dangerous virus for which there is no vaccine or treatment. He said there have been more than 200 cases and 18 deaths from the novel strain of the coronavirus reported in Shiawasee County.

Potchen said Manke has been cutting hair 12 hours a day for people all across the state during the stay-at-home orders.

"He remains publicly defiant," he said. "Others are following in his wake."

Manke's attorney David Kallman said his client's defiance is a stand for First Amendment rights.

"He's protesting the government lockdown," Kallman said. "This is symbolic speech. This is happening because they're trying to silence him."

Kallman argued said the shop poses no "imminent " danger or threat to public health or safety and questioned why some large, corporate-owned businesses are being allowed to operate.

"Why is General Motors open? Why is Walmart open? Why is Taco Bell open?" argued Kallman.

Attorney General Dana Nessel had appealed a ruling last week from Stewart when the judge denied a request to immediately close the shop through a temporary restraining order. 

Separately, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs summarily suspended Manke’s hair-cutting license last week because of his continued operation. Manke, 77, stopped cutting hair for a few days, but was back at it Tuesday even with his license suspended. 

“Who cares?” he said. “What are they going to give me? Life?