JEFFERSON — A Jefferson County Circuit Court has dismissed charges against two Watertown businesses that the city’s police department had alleged might have violated orders against being open during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-April,two city businesses were discovered to have possibly been open under city “Safer-at-Home” orders that they remain closed during the coronavirus outbreak.
The business owners charged with violating state orders were David Carlin of Johnson Creek, former owner of the Firecracker Pub, 516 E. Main St., and Jorge Jose Monterrey-Estrada, of Watertown, owner of The Gym, 612 S. Church St.
Misdemeanor charges were filed against the two after Watertown police determined the businesses continued operating when, under statute, they should have been closed during the coronavirus crisis.
Members of the public wrote to the local newspaper’s Facebook page supporting the Watertown Police Department’s actions to forward charges against the business owners its officers said repeatedly violated the order. Others said they felt police were being too strict and the city was being run like a “dictatorship” headed by Gov. Tony Evers.
Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney Monica Hall moved in recent days for the court to dismiss the matters without prejudice after she determined that it is likely that a higher court would find that they lacked the specificity necessary to support a criminal conviction.
If convicted on both of his two counts, Carlin could have faced fines of up to $1,000 and jailtime of 60 days. Monterrey-Estrada faced one count and, if convicted, could have been ordered to pay a fine of $500 and spend 30 days in jail.
The state order limiting certain business operations was put into effect March 17 by the governor and stated that all bars and restaurants must be closed until further notice, with the exception that restaurants may remain open for take-out or delivery service only. No seating was to be provided, and food was not to be consumed at the restaurant. Restaurants and bars were also directed to preserve social distancing of six-feet between customers during pick up. Those rules have since been relaxed, with others in place.
Other businesses, such as The Gym, also were required to be closed during the pandemic.
Watertown Police Department Administrative Capt. Ben Olsen explained in April why the department was enforcing the “Safer-at-Home” order the way it was.
“The Watertown Police Department maintains the opinion that any suspected or actual violation be handled as a learning opportunity, with the end goal of achieving voluntary compliance,” Olsen said. “The ‘Safer-at-Home’ order is new to everyone. Just like with any newly enacted law, we need to give people an opportunity to learn about the change.”
Olsen said criminal charges were sought against Carlin and Monterrey-Estrada because they violated the “Safer-at-Home” order after having been warned not to.
The charges against both businesses were dismissed by the court without prejudice, so they could be brought back again if necessary.