INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — The future of a Blue Springs restaurant accused of willfully defying the public mask mandate may be determined Thursday when a Jackson County judge makes her ruling on the case.
It’s the latest development in the battle between Jackson County and Rae’s Cafe, whose owner is now arguing that the county’s mask mandate is unlawful. The county, however, argues that after repeated violations, it should have the authority to shut down the restaurant.
Attorneys on both sides presented their cases Wednesday morning, but the only witness at the hearing was Jackson County Environmental Health Director Deborah Sees.
Jackson County issued its second mask mandate in response to the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 6. By Aug. 18, Sees testified that the county had received complaints about Rae’s Café not complying with the mask order.
An inspector visited the restaurant and found both customers and employees not wearing masks and signs posted openly defying the mask mandate that Sees said “seemed pretty angry.”
The restaurant received a warning on Aug. 18, but the county received another complaint on Aug. 27. This time the restaurant was ticketed for not making sure people wore masks.
The county received yet another complaint on Aug. 30. Sees visited the restaurant herself and talked with owner Amanda Wohletz.
Sees said Wohletz gave a lot of reasons for not following the mask mandate, including that the kitchen was too hot for her workers to wear masks, it was too inconvenient to enforce the mask requirement and Wohletz believed she would lose customers.
Sees testified that Wohletz never said her workers had medical exemptions until Sees returned on Sept. 3 to revoke the cafe’s food permit.
Sees said she found the medical exemption claim confusing because, during 2020 when a similar mask order was in place, Rae’s Cafe complied with the rules and the same employees did wear masks.
“This case is important; others are watching,” a lawyer for Jackson County Health Director Bridget Shaffer argued. “If the court were to say no need to follow this, the impact that could have downstream is tremendous. We have to protect the citizens of the county. That’s what the health department tried to do. That’s what (County Executive) Frank White tried to do.”
The restaurant has stayed open, claiming to be a private members-only club and charging $1 for anyone to enter and be served.
But the county compared that to a cover charge at a tavern, arguing that Rae’s is open to anyone willing to pay and is not a private club.
Rae’s reportedly posted a sign on its door, saying, “This establishment will not require staff to wear masks. We will not deal with your mouth if you have a problem with this.”
Sees also testified about a chaotic confrontation at the café with lots of yelling when the county cited the business for operating without a food permit on Sept. 10.
The confrontation was videotaped and that video will be reviewed by Judge Jennifer Phillips before she makes her ruling, which is expected before 5 p.m. Thursday.