Supporters of a Holland restaurant owner arrested for operating without a business license and defying COVID-19 health orders view her punishment as the latest front in a war against government overreach.
Several hundred supporters, including West Michigan residents, Republicans seeking office in 2022 and “patriot” activists, held a rally outside Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria Saturday calling for the release of Marlena Pavlos-Hackney. A battle between a restaurant owner who refused to comply with public health orders holds larger implications for conservatives who said the arrest affirms their worst fears about “freedom” being under attack during a pandemic.
Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddock told the crowd that Attorney General Dana Nessel should spend her time investigating the impact of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s nursing home policies. Maddock said Whitmer is responsible for the death of senior citizens and should be incarcerated.
“In case Dana Nessel needs some help with legal ethics, let’s jail the governor for killing grandma but not waitresses and line cooks that just want to earn a living,” Maddock said as a crowd of hundreds cheered. “Friends, we are accused of being racist, sexist and stupid, all of you. They want to fire us, cancel us, silence us, while they go about with their treachery. I am imploring you to find your voice. Stand up, fight back and be brave.”
Related: Supporters of jailed Michigan woman board up her restaurant, hoping to earn her release
Nessel announced last week that she will not launch a criminal investigation into the effect of Whitmer’s nursing home policies. In a letter to state lawmakers, Nessel said she has found no evidence warranting a criminal inquiry but would not hesitate to act if the situation changes.
Protesters outside a boarded-up Marlena’s Bistro in Holland Saturday carried signs calling for the arrest of Whitmer and Nessel. Others expressed distrust in statistics on COVID-19 infections and studies linking a higher risk of exposure to restraints while some called the pandemic a conspiracy to usher in “communism.”
Several people who spoke with MLive noted that Pavlos-Hackney fled communist Poland and immigrated to the United States. Speakers at the rally claimed public health orders are unconstitutional and unlawful, though rules issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services carry the force of law.
Related: Michigan’s public health orders are legal under state code, but there will be constitutional challenges
Wyoming resident Julie Nelson said she doesn’t believe any of the emergency measures have made Michigan safer. Nelson said she has little faith in the new coronavirus vaccines or that the government is doing the right thing to protect its citizens.
“That trust went away because people have been lied to over and over and over again,” Nelson said. “People no longer trust government officials, they no longer trust the medical community, they no longer trust the medical community.”
Emergency restrictions on businesses have fueled resentment among opponents of Michigan’s top-ranking Democrats throughout the pandemic. In a prayer kicking off a vehicle caravan to the Holland restaurant, Make Michigan Great Again founder Mark Gurley asked God to remove Whitmer, Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from office.
“We thank you for all these patriots who have come out to stand up for Marlena, who is being held as if a prisoner of war for keeping her restaurant open and not wearing a face mask,” Gurley said. “Father, we’re asking you in the name of Jesus Christ to intervene on Marlena’s behalf. Intervene and change the course of history, so that Michigan can become a free state, and that tyranny from our trinity of evil in our governor’s office, AG’s office and secretary of state can be removed.”
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development determined Marlena’s Bistro posed an “imminent threat to public health” because the restaurant remained open during a statewide shutdown on indoor dining and did not enforce mandates for face coverings or social distancing. Pavlos-Hackney’s license was suspended in January, but she remained open and declined to follow state safety mandates.
A customer tested positive for COVID-19 after eating at Marlena’s Bistro on Feb. 27, the Allegan County Health Department reported.
Pavlos-Hackney was arrested Friday morning on her way to work.
Around 20 supporters protested outside the Ingham County Jail Friday while patrons visited the restaurant for breakfast in solidarity with Pavlos-Hacnkey. Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina ordered that Pavlos-Hackney remain in jail until the state attorney general is convinced her restaurant will stay closed while her legal issues are resolved.
Her husband had the bistro boarded up with Friday evening after the court proceedings. A plywood plank changes the restaurant’s logo to read: “Marlena’s Bistro COMPLIED”
State Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, said he and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, were working to cover Pavlos-Hackney’s bail but it remains unlikely she will be released this weekend.
“There are a lot of people that want to help her and Meshawn and I are just two of them,” Matt Maddock said in a text message. “If she wants to stay in jail to make a point, I understand that as well.”
The story has gained significant traction among conservative media networks. Pavlos-Hackney appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and Glenn Beck’s radio show before her arrest.
“They want you to know defiance is the real crime,” Carlson said in a Friday segment regarding the arrest. “People can come here from foreign countries, rush the border, sent out with no penalty whatsoever … They go right into your neighborhood, nobody cares. But if you try your level best to run a business and od the right thing, you go to jail. Marlena Pavlos-Hackney, remember the name.”
More than 2,300 supporters raised $135,000 through an online fundraiser. Donations to a GoFundMe page sat around $35,000 on Friday morning. Most people who contributed before Friday donated under $100, but larger donations poured in after Pavlos-Hackney was arrested.
Steve Ehmann, son-in-law of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave $2,000. Garrett Soldano, a Kalamazoo chiropractor and Stand Up Michigan organizer considering a gubernatorial run, donated $4,000.
Soldano was among a handful of speakers who addressed a massive crowd outside Marlena’s Bistro from the back of a pickup truck. Soldano called Whitmer, Nessel and Benson the “terrible three” and said likened them to “the mean girls.”
“They continue to bring down the hammer on all of us,” Soldano said. “On Marlena, on small restaurants, and we are not gonna allow this any longer. The mental health crisis that we are currently in the mental health crisis that our children are currently in. This is not going to be an overnight fix. It’s going to be a decade of hard work to undo the damage that this woman has done to all of us.”
Two men in the crowd responded with “lock her up” and “stop the indoctrination.”
“We will do that,” Soldano said. “We will stop the indoctrination, the conditioning, the programming. We are going to have our grassroots movement continue to build and we grow stronger every single day.”
Maddock, the Michigan GOP co-chair, said chair Ron Weiser also donated to the fund but did not know how much he contributed. The Michigan Republican Party launched a campaign to collect stories about how the pandemic has negatively impacted residents and business owners.
Jon Rocha, who organized the GoFundMe for Pavlos-Hickney, launched a campaign to challenge U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, in 2020. He joined a group of around 20 supporters who protested outside the Ingham County Jail and attended Pavlos-Hickney’s arraignment Friday.
Rocha was shocked to see Pavlos-Hickney leave the courtroom in chains after being arrested for a civil misdemeanor crime. He said she is being made an example of to shut down dissent.
“That’s what the British did, you stifle any kind of uprising whatsoever you squash it, no one else will want to say anything,” Rocha said Friday.
The next day, Rocha questioned why no local Republican representatives attended the protest in Holland.
“They don’t care about your voice,” Rocha said. “They don’t care about you.”
Meanwhile, Maddock implored conservatives not to give up on the GOP.
“I am now talking to you on behalf of your party,” Maddock said. “Don’t turn your back on the Republican Party. I know you’re angry. I’m angry too. Don’t walk away from the Republican Party.”
Austin Chenge and Ryan Kelley, two Republicans seeking to earn their party’s nomination for governor, also spoke at the rally. Kelley, an Allendale Township planning commissioner who joined a mob of rioters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, said Whitmer is “trying to bring communism to this state.”
“What we see here is an attack on the American Dream,” Kelley said. “What we see here is an attack on every American who aspires to live a life worth living.”
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