Legal fight over restaurant closure continues

Mike Genet and Jeff Fox

Rae’s Café, the Blue Springs restaurant that remained open last week after being ordered closed by the Jackson County Health Department, now faces a restraining order from a judge.  

Signs at Rae's Cafe in Blue Springs last week rejected Jackson County's mask mandate.

Circuit Court Judge James Kanatzar granted the county’s request for a temporary restraining order on Friday. The county revoked Rae’s Café's food permit Sept. 3 for repeated violations of the county's indoor mask mandate.  

An attorney for Rae's Cafe and owner Amanda Wohletz on Saturday asked that the restraining order be ended. A conference with Kanatzar was scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday. 

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has sued Jackson County. Kansas City and other local jurisdictions over mask mandates, attended a Saturday morning rally with dozens of people outside the restaurant, saying he wanted show support for Wohletz. 

“I think the position Jackson County has taken is completely outrageous,” Schmitt said in an interview posted on social media, adding that mask mandates are “really just about power and control.” 

“Do we want to see this much control in the government, or do we believe in individual rights?” Schmitt said. “To have the local government come in and shut her down is completely ridiculous.” 

Despite the food permit being revoked, Wohletz continued to keep the diner open as a “private club,” charged visitors a membership fee of $1 and required visitor sign-in with a waiver. People continued to eat at the diner throughout the week. 

Last Thursday, Health Department Director Bridgette Shaffer ordered the diner closed for the continued violations and operating without a food permit. Her letter to Wohletz said the violation of the county’s Sept. 3 order “constitutes an imminent threat and menace to public health.” 

Friday, Wohletz posted a photo of the “Friday Freedom Special” dish and the club hours on social media. 

“Despite numerous warnings and attempts by the county to work with the business's owner, she has refused to take corrective action and has made it clear that she has no plans to do so,” Caleb Clifford, chief of staff for County Executive Frank White Jr., said in a statement Wednesday evening, when the county announced it would seek a court order. “That is why, for the first time during the pandemic, the county will be seeking a court order.”  

When the county announced the order to close on Sept. 3, a release said health officials had received complaints about the business in the previous two weeks and issued a warning and two tickets, as well as notice that failure to wear masks and post proper signs would lead to the restaurant’s food permit being revoked. 

The county mask mandate applies to places of public accommodation, which include “any place or business offering or holding out to the general public goods, services, privileges, facilities advantages or accommodations for the peace, comfort, health and safety for the general public.” The order also says that “public accommodation shall not include a private club.” 

Hand-written signs on diner's front door said “Rae's Cafe is NOT open to the public” and “Our authority comes from GOD, not from the Jackson County Health Department.”  

Another printed sign described the $1 “membership fee” and the visitor sign-in and said no masks are allowed.  

"By entering this club, you admit that you are not a member of the general public," that sign reads. "By signing your name, you record your membership and attendance. You also assume any and all risks of disease transmission." 

Rae's Café is just the third business over the whole pandemic, dating back to the spring of 2020, to have its license revoked by the Health Department for non-compliance. The county brought back its mask mandate Aug. 9 and as of two weeks ago had received more than 500 complaints and issued 86 warnings and 22 tickets for non-compliance. 

Previous violations 

The county Health Department makes regular inspections of establishments serving food in Blue Springs and elsewhere, and it also inspects based on complaints. 

Rae's has had both types of visits over the last year. 

Last October, the county found six workers lacking food-handler permits, one of five violations the inspection turned up that day. The others included “potentially hazardous food” – eggs and sliced tomatoes being held at temperatures higher than the required 41 degrees maximum – as well as dust buildup in two fans and a ceiling vent, hand sinks that didn't have water at 100 degrees or higher, and a waffle maker with a buildup of food debris. 

The county found two health code violations – again a waffle maker with a buildup of food debris as well as an accumulation of buildup in vents above grills – in early January. The county's website shows a complaint later that month and another in early February but records no violations found. 

April brought another five violations, including “potentially hazardous food.” Containers “marked such as sausage, lettuce, and hard boil eggs” lacked dates, a package of lettuce was past its discard date, and an open package of hot dogs was not date-labeled correctly. All of those issues were corrected on the spot. The prep table cooler was not reaching the correct temperature, and sausage, tomatoes and onions were warmer than allowed, and the county's report indicates some or all of that food was thrown out. 

Other violations that day were a buildup in the microwave at the prep station and a missing light cover in the employee bathroom. 

In late June, three violations were found: Walls above a sink and walls by the pick-up station had a build-up of debris, eggs were being stored above ready-to-eat food in a cooler, and there was insufficient sanitizer in the dishwasher.