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Federal Judge Dismisses Key Claims in Helbachs Coffee Lawsuit

Helbachs Coffee

The former Helbachs Coffee Roasters + Kitchen in Middleton, Wisconsin. The location is now occupied by Grace Coffee. Daily Coffee News photo.

A United States District Court judge has dismissed key arguments made by Wisconsin-based Helbachs Coffee in its lawsuit against the City of Madison, Dane County and multiple public officials.

The coffee company filed the lawsuit after it was cited for repeatedly violating local emergency public health orders last year.

Wisconsin Western District Judge William M. Conley concluded that local officials did not infringe upon the company’s First Amendment rights as it took action after the company posted a sign declaring one of its cafes a “Mask Free Zone.”

Further, noting Helbachs’ repeated mask violations plus repeated efforts on behalf of local health officials to educate and warn the business about non-compliance, the judge dismissed Helbachs’ Fourteenth Amendment claims that it was unfairly targeted by authorities.

“Indeed, what more rational way to send a message to the larger community that its order will be enforced than for a municipality to devote its limited resources to bring its most notorious scofflaw into compliance through education, citations and eventually threat of putting out of business,” Conley wrote in a summary judgement for the defense.

Additional claims in the lawsuit remain under state jurisdiction.

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The legal kerfuffle can be traced back to July 13, when an emergency health order issued by Public Health Madison & Dane County took effect. The order was designed to protect citizens against a local surge in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which as of this writing has led to more than 765,000 deaths in the United States, including 380 confirmed deaths from more than 60,000 cases in Dane County.

On that day, Helbachs CFO and Manager Casey Helbach posted a sign in the window of the company’s Middleton location saying, “This is a Mask Free Zone. Please remove mask before entering.” Though the sign was taken down that same day, it was captured in a photograph and circulated through social media.

What followed was a series of complaints from citizens alleging non-compliance inside the suburban Madison shop, visits from local health officials inspecting the property, one instance of a customer being asked to remove their mask before service, and repeated instances of staff not wearing masks, according to public accounts from both sides of the lawsuit.

Following numerous warnings throughout last June and July, Public Health Madison & Dane County announced their intention to revoke the cafe’s food and beverage license on July 31, 2020. Helbachs ultimately decided to close the Middleton shop, saying it was not able to come to terms with the landlord.

The Helbachs lawsuit follows a “Freedom Fund” Gofundme page that was established by the company last summer. That fund has raised more than $17,000.

The company continues to operate a cafe on Madison’s west side, which it opened with a “freedom party” in April of this year.

“Helbachs has decided to reopen its Madison location because we are done being voiceless,” the company wrote in its Gofundme. “Our intention at the Madison location is to create a community where one can assemble to discuss and debate their thoughts freely. One of our founding fathers once said, ‘All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.’ We are constitutionalists and believe that tyrannical government agencies can not infringe on our constitutional rights.”

Apparently, the company does not believe all government agencies are “tyrannical.”

According to public records, Helbachs Middleton location accepted a federal government loan under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the amount of $149,400 last April. That loan has been forgiven. A Madison location of the Helbachs earlier this year was awarded a $209,174 PPP loan.

[Note: In recent years, the quote cited by Helbachs above from “One of our founding fathers” is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson on platforms such as Facebook. However, historians and Thomas Jefferson’s own estate maintain that the attribution is spurious, and the precise origin of the quote is unknown.]